Hazel Southam - Journalist

Harsh winters force Mongolian horsemen to abandon nomadic life

The blockbuster movie, Mongol, depicts the skilled horsemen who helped their leader, Genghis Khan, build one of the greatest empires the world has seen.

But the lifestyle of today’s Mongolian horseman – and other nomadic herdsmen – is under threat. A succession of climactic disasters in the last 10 years has forced 500,000 of them abandon a nomadic lifestyle that has remained almost unchanged for centuries and to look instead for a new life in the cities.

Mongolia is one of the toughest places on earth to live and can boast the coldest capital – Ulaanbaatar – on the planet. Temperatures drop to at least -30C in winter. The country is frozen from November to March.

But four climactic disasters, known as ‘dzuds’, since 1999 have made life almost impossible for even the toughest of Mongolia’s nomadic people who roam over a country three times the size of France. Three particularly harsh winters since 2000 have killed a third of the nation’s livestock.

In 2001, the temperature dropped to a record-breaking -57C. Some 15,000 herders lost all of their animals through starvation and cold, and with them, their money and food. More than a quarter of the 2.6m population has left the vast rural areas, where herdsmen have lived since before Ghengis Khan’s empire was established in the 13th century, and have fled in desperation to the cities.

Among them is Byambaa Nurdev (22) a former herder in the Gobi Desert. She and her husband Tumenbayar (31) had some 600-700 sheep and goats, making them relatively wealthy. But between 2002-5 they lost every single animal.
With nothing left, the couple and their young daughter, Odgerel (now 4), hitched a lift with a lorry driver along unmade tracks to the capital: a journey that took them three days.

“Before the disasters life was good,” says Byambaa. “We had many animals and there was plenty of food. We just took care of the animals.

“It’s difficult in the city. Some days we don’t have food. There’s no future here, but there’s nothing to go back to. Being a herder was difficult, but it was a much better life.”

Today the family, including seven-month-old Odonchimeg, live in a ger (a traditional felt tent) in a slum on the edge of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar. There is no running water or sanitation. Because they lack official paperwork, the couple can’t find work and survive on hand outs from the Red Cross, which gives them flour, rice, sugar and oil every month. The rest they beg from neighbours.

Lacking the money for the traditional Mongolian diet of meat, yoghurt and milk, the family frequently goes without food. The children suffer from malnutrition. As a consequence, four-year-old Odgerel has only recently learned to walk. Baby Odonchimeg lies listlessly on a bed in semi-darkness. He is unable to sit up unaided.

However, last summer the family’s future looked even more bleak as the Red Cross’s funds for helping the displaced herders ran low. Now, Byambaa’s children continue to be fed by the Red Cross, thanks to a £100,000 donation from British car firm Land Rover. Its three-week adventure sports and driving competition – the G4 Challenge – will be held in Mongolia next year. And Land Rover has linked up with the Red Cross, to support children like Odgerel and Odonchimeg.

“We wanted to give something back,” says the event’s spokesman, Andrew Roberts. “It’s a courtesy to the places that we go to. The whole event is carbon neutral because of offsetting. The Challenge is a lot of fun, and it promotes Land Rover, but it also does something that is good for more people. For G4 it’s about making the event mean more.”

Out in the vast rural swathes of Mongolia, other herders are facing exactly the same problems as Byambaa’s family. Batkhuu Naranbyamba (31) lives with her husband Altankhuyag (26) and two children in the very heart of the Gobi Desert. The hard winter of 2002 killed all of their 600 sheep, goats and horses. Today the family tends a herd for other people and Altankhuyag takes on extra work in construction.

The couple earn two goats for a month’s work. One goat pays the fees for their elder child, Myagmarsuren (11), to attend school in the town of Dalanzadgad. But rises in food prices have meant that the couple also often go without meals, as the money earned from the remaining goat goes less far.

“When we had our own herd it was easy,” says Batkhuu. “We had enough meat and we could sell milk. Not anymore.

“I don’t have any hope of it changing. The situation is just going to stay the same. The only way that we can rebuild our herd is for our daughter to become a teacher and then she can earn enough for her brother to have a herd.

“Even then, there’s not so much rain these days and that means there’s less grazing for our cattle.”

Mungun Hulug (21) and his family keep 60 horses in the Gobi Desert. But he says, his might be the last generation to do so.

“I love riding across the plains,” he says, “but I’m worried. If the conditions get really tough, then I will have to go to town and find a job. Keeping animals you’re dependent on the weather and the price of meat. I’m not sure how it’s going to go. Town would the be last option, but if need be, I will go.”

Mongolia’s foreign minister, HE Mr Erikhbold Nyamaa told the UN last year that, “Mongolia is severely affected by the negative consequences of climate change”.

Mongolia’s image as a land of nomadic herdsmen may be about to change for good as harsh weather conditions threaten their traditional way of life and bring more herdsmen off the land into an uncertain urban future.

Originally published in Daily Telegraph - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/3346057/Harsh-winters-force-Mongolian-horsemen-to-abandon-nomadic-life.html


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel