Climate Change-Fueled Winter Extremes Put 90% Of This Country At ‘High Risk’

For nomads eking out a living by herding animals on Mongolia’s vast steppes, the deadliest winters used to come only once a decade, freezing the grasslands into solid ice or coating everything with so much snow that livestock died of cold or hunger en masse.

Now the frigid “dzud” winters come every other year, if not annually. It’s a tragic knock-on effect of the climate change rapidly drying and desertifying the nation throughout the other seasons.

Last year was particularly brutal, killing livestock by the hundreds of thousands and stranding herding families, who make up at least a third of Mongolia’s 3.3 million people, without access to food, animal feed or medicine. 

Traversing the almost boundless expanse of a sparsely populated nation more than twice the size of Texas has become impossible in all but a fraction of its territory. Over 90% of the country is now at “high risk,” the United Nations’ office in Mongolia warned earlier this month. When a dzud settled over Mongolia in 2018 and killed 700,000 heads of livestock, it was a record death toll. So far this year upward of 2 million livestock animals have died, according to official statistics, though some aid workers estimate that the number could be as much as five times higher. And this is just the beginning: The die-off isn’t expected to peak until sometime in the next two months.

For herders whose entire wealth consists of sheep, goats and horses, as well as the meat and dairy that those animals can produce, the winter spells financial ruin ― and the potential end of a traditional lifestyle passed down over thousands of generations.

“The herders were saying that they feel [like] vomiting when the snow comes,” Temuujin Munkhbat, an aid worker for the Mongolia affiliate of the British charity Save the Children, told HuffPost after he returned from delivering food, medicine and vitamins to nomadic families. “It is a traumatic experience.”

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A Mongolian herder rides his horse along the frozen landscape on March 8, 2010, in Bayantsogt, Tuv province, Mongolia. Most of Mongolia is suffering from a dzud, and this has left insufficient grazing feed for livestock.

Paula Bronstein via Getty Images

Just this month, the nonprofit delivered hay to 810 herder families whose animals were starving, provided cash distributions each worth $147 to nearly 1,000 households, and carried out psychological first-aid training sessions for teachers in the rural dormitories where nomads send their children. The U.S. Agency for International Development, meanwhile, said this month that it was sending $200,000 in aid to Mongolia to help with the dzud.

It’s a drop in the bucket. On Wednesday, UNICEF warned that more than 150,000 Mongols, including 62,500 children, were affected by the dzud, unable to maintain easy access to basic necessities or go to school or the doctor. State authorities have staged rescues of nearly 1,500 people. At least one child has died.

Despite contributing a fraction of 1% to global emissions, Mongolia’s temperatures have surged twice as fast as the global average, resulting in increased drought and greater temperature extremes in each season. There are five types of dzuds, with two taking place at the same time right now — a “white” dzud where snow cakes the ground, and an “iron” dzud where rapid thawing and refreezing turns grasslands into solid ice. The effect, however, is the same: The grass on which herders depend to feed their animals dies or becomes impossible for hungry livestock to reach.

Coupled with overgrazing ― a symptom of the shift nearly three decades ago from strictly regulated communist herding collectives to a cowboy capitalist model that generates more wealth with more animals ― a literal tragedy of the commons is playing out on what once seemed like endless green steppes. 

The brutality of this latest season heralds fresh internal upheaval in Mongolia at a politically sensitive moment, just months ahead of a historic national election. 

The formerly Soviet-aligned country, landlocked between Russia and China, emerged in the early 1990s as a vibrant, if inchoate, democracy. It’s no Taiwan or Japan, but it’s improving. Last year Mongolia rose seven ranks on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annually compiled Democracy Index, surpassing U.S. neighbors like the Dominican Republic and NATO allies like Romania and Bulgaria on the list of countries scored by electoral pluralism, function of government, civil liberties, and political participation and culture. It shares the second-tier category of “flawed democracy” with the U.S. itself.

A new election law passed in 2023 increased the size of the parliament to 126 seats from 76, setting off a fierce competition between the ruling Mongolian People’s Party — the successor to the old communist party that singularly ruled for much of the 20th century — and a handful of reformist parties that blame the incumbents for widespread graft and underdevelopment.

Critics say the People’s Party government did too little to prepare for this year’s extreme weather and then cynically used relief efforts to campaign for reelection, seizing what some saw as an unfair advantage over the opposition. 

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A 17-year-old Mongolian herder, Sukhbaatar, sits with niece Altantsetseg inside their “ger,” a traditional nomadic home sometimes called a “yurt” in English.

Paula Bronstein via Getty Images

But the party has long maintained a popularity with its base among the rural and urban poor with routine cash handouts. 

It’s unlikely that the current government will face any immediate electoral backlash for the latest disaster, said Bolor Lkhaajav, a U.S.-based analyst who tracks her native Mongolia. In a decentralized country with limited transportation, emergency response tends to fall on local provinces, she said. The election isn’t until June 28.

“What’s happening is local governments are struggling to manage the dzud, and they’re now reaching out to the central government asking for help,” she said. “The government is trying to do something. But maybe they should have done more in the fall, if they knew this was coming. They should have prepared a little more robustly.”

As HuffPost reported from Mongolia in December, the effects of climate change and a haphazard transition to capitalism are triggering a massive internal migration of herders from the countryside to the smoggy, traffic-clogged capital of Ulaanbaatar.

Upward of 30% of people in Mongolia live below the national poverty line, compared with about 12% in the U.S. and 13% in China. A better contrast may come with Brazil, where poverty rates shot up to just under 30% in 2021 with the contraction of key welfare policies. 

Like Brazil, Mongolia is rich in natural resources. But unlike South America’s largest economy, Mongolia lacks a coastline or major navigable waterways, and every overland shipping route to send goods out of the country runs through Russia or China.

Mongolia has over the past few years forged deeper ties with the United States, Japan and France as the government in Ulaanbaatar looks for partners beyond the authoritarian giants that surround its borders and dominate its economy. 

It’s not just about making friends with other democracies. Mongolia is rich in the minerals and metals needed to transition away from fossil fuels. Western countries are seeking new options for those resources as relations with Russia and China — two major sources of key commodities — deteriorate.

“The herders were saying that they feel [like] vomiting when the snow comes.”

– Temuujin Munkhbat, Save the Children Mongolia

Last summer, Moscow helped foment a coup in the West African nation of Niger, where France has for decades mined a large portion of the uranium used to fuel its nuclear reactors. By autumn, the French state-owned nuclear giant Orano announced a deal worth nearly $2 billion to mine uranium and lithium, the key ingredient in electric car batteries, in Mongolia.

The U.S. began worrying about China’s near-monopoly over the rare earth metals required for magnets and batteries as far back as 2010, when Beijing briefly cut off exports to Japan in retaliation for a nationalist squabble over competing claims to an archipelago of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Amid growing trade restrictions on both sides of the Pacific, the U.S. in June signed an agreement with Mongolia to develop rare earths production in the country and help find a way to get the metals to market without relying on the only overland shipping routes through China and Russia.

Last year, in what is among the biggest mining projects in Mongolia, the Anglo-Australian behemoth Rio Tinto finally opened one of the world’s largest copper mines in the southern Gobi Desert.

China and Russia retain powerful leverage over Mongolia. Beijing’s 2016 decision to punish Ulaanbaatar for hosting the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, by closing its borders exacted a heavy economic toll on Mongolia. China, whose own Inner Mongolia region is home to more ethnic Mongols than Mongolia itself, is Ulaanbaatar’s largest and fastest-growing export market. But Beijing ― as part of a broader campaign to assimilate some distinct ethnic minorities into the Mandarin-speaking Han majority ― has recently placed controversial restrictions on use of the Mongolian language, banned books on early Mongol history, and appeared to pressure Ulaanbaatar to arrest and deport native dissidents who challenged the cultural crackdown. 

Coal-addicted Mongolia in 2023 became more dependent than ever on Moscow for motor oil and natural gas, a relationship that’s likely to deepen with new pipelines under construction.

Since the war in Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin has downplayed Kyiv’s claim to a distinct national identity, instead promoting a revanchist vision of Moscow reasserting its historical imperial sphere of influence. Mongolia, ruled until the early 1900s by the Qing dynasty, first gained independence with the help of Russia’s czarist and then Soviet governments, which saw value in a buffer state between Moscow’s Siberian territories and China. A satellite of the Soviet Union, Mongolia remained closely tied to Russia, with generations of Ulaanbaatar’s elites studying in Moscow’s universities. A giant monument commemorating the Mongols who fought with the Soviet Union in World War II offers the most prized ridge-top views of Ulaanbaatar.

Despite maintaining traditional text on some official buildings and signs, Mongols today primarily write and read their own language in the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet.

Against that political backdrop, Mongolia is now grappling with the harsh reality that changes in weather patterns that date back centuries are making it impossible for nomads to continue the ancient way of life that sustained their families for millennia.

“We are seeing extreme climate conditions more frequently these days,” Bayan-Altai Luvsandorj, the head of Save the Children Mongolia, told HuffPost over email. “We therefore need to take a hard look [at] the traditional way we have been living off the land here in Mongolia.”

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