Mongolia in for double whammy: drought now, 'dzud' next

ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Balchig Baljinnyam, a small-time farmer in central Mongolia, is busy building a shelter for his dairy cows ahead of what is expected to be the most brutal winter in years. A summer drought has already cut traditional sources of fodder for his herd.

A harvester works in a crops field affected by drought, near Ulaanbaatar, in Talbulag, Jargalant district, Tov province, Mongolia, August 26, 2015. REUTERS/B. Rentsendorj

It will be a double whammy for Mongolia this year. Its mining sector, which accounts for 17 percent of the economy, is in shambles due to weak commodity prices. Now the farm sector is in trouble. The drought has wiped out up to 80 percent of its wheat crop and up next could be the worst winter in six years.

Mass animal deaths due to a freezing winter, locally known as a “dzud”, in a predominantly pastoral country would only make a bad situation worse. In 2009-2010, Mongolia lost 20 percent of its livestock to the dzud, the World Bank estimates.

“It’s not a drought, it’s a catastrophe,” said Davjigbold Ariunbold, the owner of a farm around 110 kilometers (68 miles) southwest of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, near Baljinnyam’s setup.

At least 40 percent of the wheat crop on the farm has died, but the extent of the damage will be clear during the September harvest, added Ariunbold, pointing to his fields where the crop was limping at about ankle high. His next worry is the dzud.

Usually, a dzud is likely to occur when a harsh winter follows a very dry summer.

Erdene-Ochir Badarch, an operations officer at the World Bank in Ulaanbaatar, said there was a high chance of a dzud after the severe drought this year. “In the north and east there is a high possibility,” he said.

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The Mongolian government has promised to ban wheat and meat exports from September before winter sets in to ensure domestic supplies. It has also said it will import wheat from Russia for flour and animal fodder.

These efforts, however, may not be enough to offset the damage to grazing pastures, forcing some herders to cull their livestock or risk not having enough fodder to feed the animals.

“They’re ready to face a harsh winter. Some of them will choose to slaughter,” Badarch said.


Mongolia blames the severe disruption in its weather on climate change caused by high global greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite being a low emitter, the landlocked country has seen temperatures rise 2.14 degrees Celsius over the last seven decades, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme, three times faster than the global average.

Home to tens of thousands of semi-nomadic people, Mongolia said in a submission to the United Nations in 2010 that climate change would have “a direct and dramatic effect on almost all sectors of the national economy and all spheres of social life”.

This year, locals, already reeling from crop damage and a drop in mining profits given lower copper and coal prices, are worried that a oversupply of meat due to dzud would drive down prices and further cripple their incomes.

“Financially, it’s getting really hard for the farmers,” said the farmer Baljinnyam. “They have to build a shelter for their cattle but can’t do so themselves.”

Many farmers are counting on the government to prevent disruptions in wheat supply and to buy meat for the reserves it keeps for when prices get too high on tight supply.

“A dzud is not just only a natural hazard; it’s a natural and socio-economic hazard,” said Sodov Khudulmur, interim director at the Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment.

Additional reporting by David Stanway in BEIJING; Editing by Himani Sarkar