About 10 days ago, our aimag was visited by three important people: the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Jonathon Addleton, the USAID representative to Mongolia Chuck Howell (and interestingly enough, the first Peace Corps Director in Mongolia from 1991-1993), and Dan Rakove - Political Officer from the U.S. Embassy. Besides coming to view our wonderful region, their main focus was to see first-hand the devastating effects of the "zud" (this word is used when snow falls early in the winter, melts during the day, freezes overnight, and then it snows again the next day making it impossible for weak animals to break through to the grass beneath - this has probably been the worst winter in the past 30 years here in Mongolia).
(left to right: Chuck from USAID, myself, Ambassador Addleton)
According to Chuck, both Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags have been hit the worst...but everywhere in the country herders are being affected in a myriad of ways. We began the day by meeting in a nearby soum (Tuuvshruulekh) to chat with the soum governor as well as some of the herder families in the nearby hills. The piles and piles of dead animals along the "road" were disheartening. The first herder we spoke to said he'd lost 60 percent of his goats/sheep. A little further on we stopped at a ger to chat with the families, and saw that their situation appeared similar. They've lost 18 of their 20 horses, all but 1 cow, and they only have 100 of their original 400 sheep/goats. It was incredibly sad. They even told us a story of having their first load of hay and fodder stolen from their truck earlier in the winter...and that just set the tone for the rest of the season.
Dan from the US Embassy had his camera and has promised to send me photos of what we saw early that day. I will post some of those as soon as I get them. Not only did we see piles of dead animals, but herders must take the dead and dying animals from the pens each morning - typically 3-4 every night! They're piled outside the gers.
(Arkhangai Governor's Office)
Our next stop was back in town to meet with the Aimag governor - we discussed the impact this year's zud has had versus the one they had back in 2000-2001. We talked about lessons learned, what they're doing to help these herders, and the impact this winter will have over the coming 3-5 years in Mongolia. The local government estimates that 50-60% of all herders will have to find new work because they will not have enough animals left to continue herding. This means a flood of people into the aimag centers and into UB...all of which will be looking for work. The job market is already limited, so the coming years will probably see a spike in the poverty rates.
Afterward, we decided it would be good to meet with the some of the local organizations that are attempting to assist those in need. We visited with the head of Information Education Center (IEC), the head of Knowledge Network (the other organization I work with), as well as with FLOM (the Finnish organization in town that works directly with disabled people and their businesses). They were quick visits, but they reminded us that in the midst of all the trouble there are many people attempting to help.
After all of the visits and tours through town, myself and all of the Peace Corps Volunteers here in Arkhangai got together with our visitors and had a wonderful meal together at Fairfield Cafe. We got to chat a bit more about what we're all doing here in Arkhangai...and got to talk with the Ambassador in a wonderfully informal way.
It was a great day for me in many ways - I got a chance to chat with these three men, gaining different perspectives and gleaning information throughout the day. I met government officials here in Arkhangai. I also got a chance to see the surrounding regions and see first-hand the zud's devastation...though it was sad, it was an eye-opener that I wouldn't have missed. And I felt like overall I was given an opportunity to meet "important" people...representatives who really have a chance to catch the ear of the US government and help bring about assistance to Arkhangai and all of Mongolia.