The findings of this study—that in just 3 of 32 events analysed was dzud preceded by drought—contravene entrenched opinion, bedrock policy foundations, international agency presumptions and development practices. Questioning the drought–dzud assumption and contesting the environment-driven disaster scenario can invigorate research, policy and disaster mitigation. The ability to better understand hazards has increased significantly over time yet the Mongolian process reflects how the ‘drought leads to dzud’ inference became an unchallenged link. A new paradigm better suited to on-the-ground realities may do more to reduce disaster impact that increased funding based on past attitudes. Long-standing folk wisdom has an important place in thought and discussion, but it should not limit scientific insight that can ameliorate livelihoods. That other research has not chosen to isolate drought is perhaps not surprising given the predominance that the drought–dzud hypothesis has enjoyed. The study objective was to investigate standard assumptions; results encourage reassessment of physical relationships in Mongolia and the greater region.
The clear outcome of the study is that past and present presumption of drought causality of dzud requires re-examination. Findings suggest more varied and nuanced research that addresses non-drought factors that contribute to dzud is essential (Sternberg 2010; Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2012). This can commence with further investigation of winter snow depth, timing of freeze–thaw cycles, separating summer and winter climate patterns, anomalous events and early and late-onset disaster. Factors contributing to animal weight gain, mobility, pasture degradation livestock mortality, could be reviewed. Examining disparities between dzud intensity, livestock health and pasture conditions at regional and local levels will further understanding. Greater recognition of the role of herder decision-making and actions, acknowledgement of their unique ecological insight, the contributory socio-economic forces and government policy is vital. Choices, selection and behaviour have antecedent motivation and commonly, rational reasons if regarded from the herder perspective. Dzud relief efforts, emergency fodder at local and national levels and international aid are part of the context. The extant literature identifies the conflicted, dual nature of dzud and implicitly asks the question ‘is it a physical or social disaster?’ (Murphy 2012). The body of literature can advance, delve into the bifurcated nature of cold disaster in livestock systems and move beyond the concept that ‘drought causes dzud’ which has been a poor explanation of complex physio-social processes. Mongolian and international research in the country has progressed greatly in the last 20 years; it remains a puzzle why as technical capacity has improved more effort has not been spent establishing baseline knowledge about endemic hazards. Thus 17 years after the first severe post-soviet era dzud, we continue to rely on Batjargal (1997) and Natsagdorj and Dulamsuren (2001) early assessments of dzud and environmental conditions.
In part reliance on the imprecise drought–dzud relation was born of exigency in the 1990s as Mongolia abruptly moved from communism to a market system through much turmoil. At the same time, advising international agencies had little knowledge of Mongolian natural and social systems. Limited capacity and funding, severe dzuds from 1999 to 2002 and great human misery meant basic response and rapid reaction was needed. With time the concepts of the era became entrenched; now science can reassess the country’s hazards and to further engage and test the rather messy intricacies of dzud. We see this in new approaches by Shinoda (2017), Middleton et al. (2015) and Ahearn (2016); now more than previously the research agenda should be wide open from macro- to microscales.
The government role is highlighted through reports written in Ulaan Baatar (e.g. MARCC 2009; National Action Programme on Climate Change 2011; annual National Statistical Yearbook) yet the state maintains a modest presence in the drought and dzud impacted countryside dynamics (Sternberg and Batbuyan 2013). The key perspective is that as government interaction with herding changed from communism’s top-down state control to today’s laissez faire approach, the assumption of responsibility also changed. Thus, the effective district hay barns of the Soviet era are now empty and derelict; today the disaster response scenario is remote, cumbersome and of limited value to herders. For example, a herder experiencing dzud in Hovd Province, 1800 kilometres from the capital, has little prospect of fodder, relief or aid from the government as exemplified in 2010 (Middleton et al. 2015). Previously response mitigated disaster to a degree; now Mongolia depends on a fickle international community that promises aid but seldom delivers in full (World Bank/Benson C 2011). What does arrive faces severe infrastructure and distribution problems so as to be of little timely, immediate relief. The gradual change in the government’s disaster perception, role and performance promotes a drought–dzud focus where the message is of unforeseen, uncontrollable natural hazards beyond the government’s remit to address or ameliorate. An updated assessment can directly address the government’s limited ability to reduce disaster threat. To herders, it may be preferable to have matters presented clearly rather than foster unreasonable hope of support. This also encourages herders to acknowledge that they are effectively responsible for mitigation.
Data from the Mongolian Statistical Office (2016) provide a way to stimulate new questions at relevant scales. Figures 4 and 5 present changes in livestock numbers at the national level and in the four selected provinces. Patterns show much annual variability with decreases after major dzud events. Examining livestock numbers and hand-collected fodder harvests (reflecting herder effort) show the strong drivers that can affect extreme events (Fig. 5). One is positive—the collection of fodder by hand for emergency winter supply (r
2 = 0.8) whilst a doubling of livestock in less than 15 years increased pressure on pastoral systems. The livestock curve is impressive as animal numbers increased from 22 million in post-dzud 2002 to 51 million in 2014 (r
2 = 0.6) with similar patterns of livestock change in the four study sites (Fig. 5). Over the same time the amount of fodder has distinctly fluctuated. The 1990s were low-harvest years. After the 1999–2002 dzud era fodder collection increased, only to decline through 2009 as drought but not dzud occurred. Drought affects the amount of vegetation cover and plant biomass, thus potentially limiting forage for animal weight gain and reducing fodder harvests. Following the 2009–2010, dzud fodder harvest increased 26% in the immediate year and 42% the next, to then drop 15%. The national and provincial data provides a lens to conceive of the wide range of potential human factors affecting pastoral vulnerability. The motivations reflect both economic—increase herd size for revenue and practical reasons—improve veterinary nutrition and provide fodder to keep animals from starving. Throughout processes decision-making, key players (herder households, government, NGOs) and their actions are divergent yet impacted by natural hazards.
Increasing livestock numbers, variable fodder resources, intermittent drought events and less-remarked yet significant allied practices (e.g. mobility, animal intensification, markets, competition for water) raise additional concerns that are reflected in research literature. This centres on physical resources, degradation, overgrazing, land tenure etc. and their implications for herding practices, assigning vulnerability and criticising herders when rational livelihood decisions (increased livestock) may be regarded as negative processes environmentally. This apparent conundrum, a version of Hobson’s choice—selecting environmental vs economic benefit—can potentially be a sustainable option depending on context and resources. Additional livestock may be feasible (and not detrimental) if they are accompanied by adequate pasture, mobility, fodder, lack of resource competition—factors that enable increased levels of productivity. The disaggregation of multiple factors is difficult in the strictures of an academic article, yet this paper raises the point that pastoralism has several approaches as different as the herders practicing it. Their inherent local wisdom and ecological knowledge may be more reliable than desk-based drought or dzud analysis (this paper included). Yet to influence policy, practice, funding and mitigation at national or international scales data, justification and explanation is required. This article challenges one of the established pastoral axioms in questioning the relationship between drought and dzud.
The study data present four meteorological stations over a 45-year period. The country’s large size and disparate landscapes encourages more in-depth study both at the national level and within regions and localities. One challenge is the limited number of stations in the country. NOAA identifies 40 stations nationwide, or one station per 39,000 km2 (compare this to nearby Kazakhstan, with one station for every 8200 km2 or Iceland, one per 1470 km2). This means much detail is lost due to scale issues and recognises that results may differ in a detailed province or district level study. A potential new method would be to use extracted global data sets, such as from the UK’s Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia that generates gridded data sets from 1900 (Harris et al. 2014). The caveat is that for much of the period Mongolia had limited weather monitoring, thus extrapolated data would lack accuracy and value for much of the twentieth century. Other technical approaches, such as satellite vegetation, temperature or moisture monitoring, can provide a short-term perspective on climate and pasture fluctuation in the country. The UNESCO Remote Sensing Lab at Mongolian National University and the National Remote Sensing Office are two capable centres that could engage in remotely sensed environmental monitoring, whilst NAMHEM can undertake climate monitoring.
An interesting factor is that dzud is a particularly Mongolian phenomenon, at least in its perception as a major disaster. The word dzud is Mongolian; across the border in northern China there is no local equivalent. The closest term is ‘snow disaster’ that lacks the impact or urgency of dzud. Equally, there is little research on dzud in Kazakhstan, perhaps in part due to the decrease in pastoralism and sedentarisation of recent decades. Both countries share the steppe landscape and herding traditions yet do not perceive or experience major dzuds nor focus on a drought–dzud link. This suggests the dynamics are country-specific and that the disasters reflect unique domestic factors. These may include the importance of pastoralism as a livelihood in Mongolia, the high proportion of rural residents, limited non-herding opportunities in the countryside and strong cultural links to pastoralism. Climate threats may also highlight the decline in effectiveness of the government to mitigate hazards over recent decades, or the concurrent dramatic growth in livestock numbers that increases pasture stress and herder vulnerability. These key factors reflect social influences rather than physical parameters. The principal message becomes that disaster is significant in the country, that they are multifaceted and result from physical forces and human action. ‘Drought causes dzud’ becomes an ingenuous assumption that was not supported by investigation—in 29 of 32 events analysed, dzud was not preceded by drought. Clarity on causal complexity will strengthen disaster strategies with significant benefit for pastoralists at the centre of the hazard tempest.