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What is a “Dzud” and what has it got to do with Climate Change?

September 6, 2010

What is a “dzud”?

I’m sure most of us living here in Singapore would never have heard or experienced a dzud ever simply because it’s not a tropical phenomenon. In fact, a “dzud” is a Mongolian term for an extremely snow and cold. The term is not only used specifically in the Mongolian context, but can be applicable to other winter conditions, where livestock and animals become unable to feed.

Animal carcasses from a dzud

So what does a “dzud” have to do with climate change?

Currently, Mongolia is going through one of these “dzuds”, brought about by a summer drought followed by a heavy winter snow with significantly colder temperatures. According to the Mongolia Dzud Situation Report 1 by the World Health Organisation, daily temperatures drop to below -40° Celsius across most of Mongolia, with 90 percent of the country covered in snow. In addition, the Government has declared 7 of 21 provinces as disaster areas, with 12 other provinces severely affected.

There are severe health impacts of a “dzud”, including

  • Extended food shortages
  • Lack of access to adequate shelter
  • Lack of access to medical treatment, especially for obstetric cases
  • Increase in the incidence acute respiratory infections and pneumonia
  • Increased malnutrition and acute infections

These severe health issues brought about by the freeze are increasingly forcing herders from the plains of Mongolia out of the land and into the cities, CNN reports. The winters are becoming increasingly difficult for herders to sustain their livelihoods. The United Nations Development Program estimates more than 7.8 million animals — 17 percent of the country’s livestock — died in the most recent dzud that hit Mongolia.

The extreme cold and frost has left the landscape devastated, so much so that many of Mongolia’s remaining 800,000 nomadic herders are being forced to move to urban sprawls in search of work. This, despite a cash-for-carcasses initiative that offers short-term financial support for those who help clear away the remains of the country’s decimated herds. The U.N. estimates that around 9,000 households have been left with almost no livestock at all, and 32,700 have lost at least half of their animals.

While the link between increased extreme weather patterns causing the dzuds to climate change isn’t established (yet), the increase in population to cities will most definitely bring about down-the-line impacts on production, consumption and is likely to result in increased emissions and hence further worsen the climate and impact on the environment.

When herders become unemployed due to the loss in their herding livelihood caused by the dzud, they move to the capital of Mongolia,  Ulan Bator. Migrants often move to Northern Ulan Bator, in the ger district. Population statistics show unemployment there to be as high as 50%.


Therefore, a dzud while not only causing widespread suffering and loss of livestock and livelihoods for traditional herders in parts of Mongolia, is also creating new problems of urban sprawl and may exacerbate climate change. More research needs to be done on establishing a possible link between dzuds and climate change, as well as how population migration by climate refugees may have on the environment. The implications of dzuds listed in this piece is by no means exhaustive, and I’m sure there are many other harmful effects as well as  problem solving strategies taken on by the government of Mongolia and the WHO in trying to curb the problem not listed here. However, just bear in mind that climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. The people in the Northern hemisphere unfortunately will feel the effects sooner than us in the tropical areas but this problem is further worsened when affecting land-locked countries such as Mongolia, where the continental effect results in  a greater range in surface air temperature at both daily and annual scales. This amounts to harsher winters and warmer summers in some places.

So I hope you learnt some thing from this and think about how the climate of your own country will change due to the effects of climate change, and what can possibly be done to mitiage or adapt to these changes. I look forward to hearing your comments! 🙂


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