Dzud Winter Hits Mongolian Nomads Hard – Mongolian Nomad Project Strengthens Resilience

The Devastating Impact of Dzud Winter on Mongolian Nomads and their Herds, driven by Climate Change and Overgrazing

Mongolia’s nomadic herders have again faced a savage “dzud” winter, with more than 2 million livestock frozen to death so far. Climate change — extreme cold and heavy snow following summer drought — is driving this tragedy but overgrazing makes it worse. C Level partners closely with the Mongolian Nomad Project, funding groups of Nomads, taking action on these twin challenges…

Here is an account provided by Zaya Delgerjargal, a producer at TenGer TV in Mongolia, where she covers climate change:

“The temperature was minus 45 degrees F when Uuganaa, a 27-year-old nomad with a wife and two children, woke to the howling winds outside his “ger,” a felt-covered traditional Mongolian dwelling. Sensing something amiss, he hurriedly put on his heavy fur coat and noted that another blanket of snow had fallen during the night. Then he shoveled his way outside.
Stepping outside, the air was so cold it condensed his breathe on his scarf and froze his eyebrows and eyelashes. Uuganaa had left more than a hundred goats and sheep outside the night before, but now they were nowhere to be seen. There were no trails either. He realized that his prized herd, which he had raised from birth with his aunt and uncle, was under more than 3 feet of snow. All had frozen to death”.

Mongolian nomads rely on the land and its resources for their survival, navigating the vast steppes with resilience and adaptability. However, in recent years, they’ve faced a new and formidable adversary: the ‘dzud’ winter, which has brought major challenges to the traditional way of life in Mongolia.

Dzud is a Mongolian term used to describe a severe winter weather phenomenon characterised by heavy snowfall followed by a sudden drop in temperatures. While harsh winters are not uncommon in Mongolia, the frequency and intensity of dzud have increased in recent decades due to climate change. Rising global temperatures have led to erratic weather patterns, including more extreme cold snaps and heavier snowfalls.

For nomadic herders, whose livelihoods depend on livestock grazing on the open steppes, dzud poses a significant threat. The heavy snowfall blankets the pasturelands, making it difficult for animals to find food. Combined with plummeting temperatures, this can lead to widespread livestock deaths due to starvation and exposure. The consequences are devastating for the herders who lose their primary source of income and sustenance.

Overgrazing exacerbates the impact of dzud winter. In recent decades, Mongolia has experienced rapid population growth among both humans and livestock and a loss of the traditional nomadic way of life, with less movement of herds. This has put immense pressure on the fragile ecosystem, leading to the degradation of pasturelands. Overgrazing weakens the grasslands’ ability to recover from harsh winters, making them more susceptible to erosion and desertification. As a result, when dzud strikes, the land is less able to support the herds, exacerbating the crisis.
Overgrazing also leads to the release of carbon from the ecosystem.

C Level has supported the Mongolian Nomad Project since 2015 when we produced a short docustory to help them communicate on innovation and impact. Since then, under the holistic carbon standard Plan Vivo Climate, we have supported several ‘Heseg’ (extended family groups of nomads) financially to reduce overgrazing and continue with their traditional nomad way of life. This enables the grassland ecosystem to recover and sequester more carbon into the soil of the grasslands. The Mongolian Nomad Project creates Plan Vivo Certificates which can be used by businesses to remove carbon and carbon balance their activities.

Over the coming years this model can be expanded and used to counter the profound social and cultural implications of future dzud winters. Nomadic herding is not just an occupation but a way of life deeply intertwined with Mongolian culture and identity. When dzud decimates livestock herds, it erodes the social fabric of nomadic communities, leading to increased poverty, migration to urban centers, and the loss of traditional knowledge and practices passed down through generations.

The project’s approach is powerful since it provides verified action on the two main causal forces – climate change and overgrazing.

Efforts to combat climate change must be intensified on both global and local levels. Mongolia, despite its low contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, is disproportionately affected by climate change. Investing in renewable energy, promoting sustainable land management practices, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels can help mitigate the impacts of climate change on Mongolia’s fragile ecosystem.

Additionally, addressing overgrazing requires a combination of policy interventions and community-based initiatives. Implementing grazing quotas, rotational grazing systems, and pastureland rehabilitation programs can help restore the health of Mongolia’s grasslands while ensuring the long-term viability of nomadic herding.

Ultimately, the impact of dzud winter on Mongolian nomads serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to address the intertwined challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. By taking decisive action to protect Mongolia’s unique ecosystem and support its nomadic communities, our clients like Mongolian Travel specialist Panoramic Journeys, through the Mongolian Nomad Project, help remove carbon, restore nature and strengthen community.

A river winds through the centre of the Undurshireet in Mongolia.
The Undurshireet in Mongolia.