Famine Avoided Despite Drought and ‘Zud’ in Mongolia

Summary of published paper1

Nomadic herding remains at the core of Mongolian society, employing a significantly larger proportion of the population than any other economic activity. A series of liberalising reforms between 1989 and 1992, sparked by the breakdown of the Soviet Union and a termination of subsidies, led to the privatisation of the herd collectives (negdels) and the wholesale transfer of livestock and other assets to private ownership, mainly by individual herders. Services, formerly provided for free, were mostly either discontinued or made available only at a cost. As a result, use of these services contracted or collapsed. The number of herding households more than doubled from 69,000 in 1989 to 154,000 in 1993, as newly unemployed city-dwellers sought to take advantage of the privatisation of negdel herds while fleeing food and job shortages in urban areas. Cash shortages in the countryside led to the reappearance of a barter economy and a sharp decline in the consumption of purchased foods in favour of self-provisioning.

A recently published article based on field research in two districts of Bayankhongor province Mongolia, examines how famine has been avoided amongst the population against a backdrop of 'Zud', despite the increased risk associated with this form of subsistence. Zud denotes any one of a range of winter conditions which threaten livestock survival, such as unusually abundant snowfall, the formation of an impenetrable ice layer over pastures, or a lack of sufficient winter fodder following a summer drought or due to soil compaction by grazing animals. In the past decade, Zud winters in 1993 and 1997 were followed by an unprecedented three-year sequence of dry summers and extremely harsh winters between 1999-2002. Weakened by inadequate summer feeding and lacking sufficient supplementary feed, several million animals died each winter in blizzards and temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero in some areas. Overall, the national herd size decreased from 33.6 million in 1999 to about 25.1 million in April 2002.

Between 1999 and 2002, the number of livestock in the study area declined by 65% in one district and 22% in the other, as a result of Zud. Over two weeks, 14 herding households, most of whom had suffered heavy livestock losses, were interviewed in each district about coping strategies employed, help received and recovery prospects. Additional information was obtained by consulting statistics and interviewing officials and NGO staff at state, provincial, and district levels.

Why was there no famine?

One reason posited by the authors is the existence of democracy. Mongolia has had an active democratic system since 1989, with a powerful elected parliament containing representatives of several parties, an active opposition and a free press. The devastating impacts of the droughts and Zuds of 1999-2002 have been debated at length in parliament and in the newspapers. The government has been open about what was happening and within the limits of its resources, has acted effectively.

Another reason is the behaviour of herders. Winter preparation by herders has been important. Although the lack of milking animals had a significant impact on food quality, winter food stores - augmented by borrowing - ensured that for most herder households, the real impact of animal losses on livelihoods was delayed. Good income from cashmere sales filled the gap in 1999-2000. When cashmere and other livestock products income crashed after 2000, herders turned to alternative sources, relying particularly on pensions and other social insurance benefits as well as on assistance from family and patrons, to maintain a minimum level of consumption while conserving their remaining herd. Extra loans were sought, as was supplementary income in farming, gold mining and casual jobs. In 2000, some households benefited from generous relief and restocking.

However, the authors caution that after three Zuds in as many years, each following a drought summer, the capacity of some households may be stretched to near collapse. One indication of this is the recent increase in child malnutrition in Bayankhongor province, which doubled between December 2001 and May 2002. While most households had sufficient food at the end of 2002 derived from a bundle of food and income sources, many are extremely vulnerable and are likely to face severe difficulties as winter stores run out, new loans are not available and old ones cannot be repaid.

In a broader sense, coping in terms of maintaining a sustainable livelihood has failed for many households. For poor households with small herds and little prospect of acquiring more animals, herding no longer yields enough to provide for long-run subsistence. Realising this, many herders, particularly in the Gobi region, are considering migration to cities in order to find non-herding employment. Many have already done so and nationally the rural population has decreased, for the first time since transition, by 7.6% over the past 2 years.

Others who either do not want to migrate or are constrained by lack of funds, obligations to care for elderly parents in the countryside, or owing to the absence of city-based family or friends, are seeking alternative sources of income in or near their home districts.

The authors conclude that for many households, the losses of the last winter have triggered the beginning of 'coping failure' and the necessity to switch from 'coping' to 'adaptation' - moving from short-term responses to temporary food shortages, to permanent changes in the ways in which food is acquired. Unlike farmers, herders with too few animals cannot hope that a single good year will restore them to economic health. If another Zud occurs before herders have had an opportunity to re-build their resource bases, the resulting increase in food insecurity and economic and social upheaval for affected households may well be far more widespread.

Show footnotes

1Siurua, H and Swift, J (2002). Drought and Zud but no famine (yet) in the Mongolian herding economy. IDS Bulletin vol 33, no 4, 2002

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Famine Avoided Despite Drought and ‘Zud’ in Mongolia. Field Exchange 20, November 2003. p8. www.ennonline.net/fex/20/famine