Death stalks the frozen land of Genghis Khan
Mongolia is experiencing the worst famine in a generation, as Peter Foster found when he spent time with nomads in the one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth.
Peter Foster in Uliastai
21 Mar 2010
The gaunt carcass of the horse lay where it had fallen, the cause of death - a slow, painful starvation - obvious from its near-fleshless, silvery bones that gleamed under an ice-blue Mongolian sky.
In a nearby tree, a murder of glossy crows sat patiently waiting their chance to feast on the latest victim of the white dzud, the name Mongolian herders use to describe a winter of such ferocity that it comes round only once in a generation.
This has been one of those winters; fattening the carrion feeders, the crows, magpies and stooping, black vultures on the carcasses of more than two million farm animals, with another two million expected to perish before the winter ends.
The looming catastrophe is so serious that the United Nations has issued an urgent appeal for assistance for this remote corner of Asia, a region so inhospitable that westerners rarely penetrate it.
A drought last summer meant that the sparse grazing yielded even less nutrition than usual. Now, as The Sunday Telegraph became the first western newspaper to witness at close quarters, Mongolian herdsmen, the ancestors of the warrior clans that conquered most of Asia under Genghis Khan, face a struggle just to keep alive.
The herdsmen are no strangers to hardship, inured to tending their flocks in temperatures below -40C, but even they have been defeated by the savagery of this particular season.
"It died this morning, I skinned it for its coat which is worth a little money," said the owner of the dead horse, retreating into his ger, the traditional round felt-lined dwelling of Eurasian nomads. "On January 20 I had 1080 head of stock. I have lost more than 800 since then."
On that night, recalled 35-year-old Batbayar Zundui, the first big snows of winter came driving down the valleys of the western Mongolian Altai mountains where he lives with his wife and three-month-old daughter.
"The snows were too deep for the animals to reach the pasture. We brought them in, but because of the drought last summer we didn't have enough fodder to feed them. Many starved to death where they stood," he says matter-of-factly.
Batbayar, who had 70 horses last December of which only eight remain, cannot hide his despair as he explains how some mornings he wakes to find two animals dead, other mornings 10.
Recently his three elder daughters returned home from the nearest town where they attend a government boarding school, to discover the rising mound of carcasses behind the family home.
"Some of the animals that died were owned by them and they loved them especially dearly," he says, unable to hold back a tear. "My daughters cried and then they blamed their parents for failing them."
Such stories are told over and over in the mountains outside Uliastai, the capital of Mongolia's western Zavkhan province 620 miles from the capital Ulan Bator, and indeed over swaths of the country which has declared a national disaster in 12 of its 21 provinces.
The United Nations and aid organisations such as Save the Children have issued an urgent appeal for assistance to clear fallen livestock and deliver food, fuel and medical care to the herdsmen and their families who account for more than a third of Mongolia's 2.7m population.
"Mongolia is in the middle of a major emergency," says Anna Ford, Asia specialist with Save the Children. "Tens of thousands of families don't know how they are going to feed their children, heat their homes or keep their animals alive and things are only going to get worse."
The scale of the emergency, and the difficulty of delivering assistance, becomes gruesomely clear as we drive north from Uliastai along unmarked roads, churning across the windblown steppe through mile after mile of drifting snow and sliding wildly across frozen rivers.
In a country three times the size of France, many of the herders remain unreachable, locked in the vastness of some of the most inhospitable inhabited terrain on the planet.
The evidence of Mongolia's animal holocaust lies all around; horses and cows skinned at the roadside where they fell and, in gully after gully, piles of sheep and goat carcasses, frozen by the Siberian winds. Only the camels seem to survive.
But if nature is the principle cause of this disaster, it may not be wholly to blame for its debilitating impact on the herdsmen.
Elders who remember the great dzuds of 1968 and 1944 say the ability of modern Mongolian farmers to cope with the disaster has been diminished by a combination of greed and neglect.
Since Mongolia embraced market reforms and abandoned its Soviet-inspired co-operative agriculture system in the 1990s the numbers of animals on the pastures has doubled to an unsustainable 44 million.
Grazing land has been chronically over-used, particularly by destructive, grubbing goats bred to feed the international demand for cashmere wool.
Up in a narrow crease of a snow-filled valley, a 70-year-old herder called Baavankhon frames Mongolia's problems in more poetic terms.
Like many herders, Baavankhon worships the land that sustains him, making offerings to a sacred mountain but in recent years, he says, people have been cutting firewood from the holy places; just one example of how the ancient compact with nature has been broken in modern Mongolia.
"We have mountains, rivers and sky and the most powerful of these is the sky," he says as outside the snow begins to fall again. "If the sky is in a good mood, it brings us warmth and moderate rains that bring us a good life. But if the sky is angry it sends us cold and snow and then we are ruined."
The dzud poses a huge problem for a country struggling to adapt to the post-Communist era, mired in corruption and unplanned urbanisation.
Allegations of vote rigging in a 2008 parliamentary poll sparked violent protests, but calm returned last May after 46-year-old Tsakhia Elbegdorj was elected President on an anti-corruption ticket.
International investors are now queuing up for the chance to exploit Mongolia's vast mineral reserves - gold, silver, copper, iron and uranium – which are being eyed by neighbouring China.
However with a third of Mongolians living in poverty, it remains unclear whether Mongolia's 180,000 herder families will benefit from their country's massive potential.
For now those development goals are subordinate to the immediate task of delivering help to those in need.
Herders like 25-year-old Bayambajav Choijin, who has already lost more than a third of her flock of 300 sheep and goats, know that April will prove the cruellest month as stores run out.
"Normally when we buy food we don't pay cash, but agree that in the spring, when we sell cashmere from the goats, we'll pay back the shopkeeper, but with the large number of animals dying they won't give us anything now," she says.
The UN reports infant mortality rates are already rising by 40 per cent in worst-affected districts and in Uliastai where the hospital has 42 cases for its 35 beds, doctors predict rising numbers of suicide and neurosis.
Bayambajav says the impacts of the dzud will be felt by her family for years to come and that she will now never be able to provide the college education she dreams of for her son, Batmagnal.
"The animals mean everything for us," she says looking on as the boy plays at her feet, oblivious to his shrinking fortunes.
"They are our food, our store of wealth and on their backs rest all our future plans."
*To donate to Save the Children's Emergency Fund go to www.savethechildren.org.uk/cef
see also: mongolia maps
How the West poisoned Bangladesh
A UN project aimed to help millions - but it brought them water contaminated with arsenic
By Andrew Buncombe
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Up to 20 million people in Bangladesh are at risk of suffering early deaths because of arsenic poisoning – the legacy of a well-intentioned but ill-planned water project that created a devastating public health catastrophe.
Four decades after an internationally funded move to dig tube wells across the country massively backfired, huge numbers of people still remain at higher risk of contracting cancer and heart disease. The intellectual development of untold numbers of children is also being held back by the contamination of drinking water. Poor diet exacerbates the risk.
Bangladesh's arsenic crisis dates back to the 1970s when, in an effort to improve the quality of drinking water and counter diarrhoea, which was one of the country's biggest killers of children, there was large-scale international investment in building tube wells. It was believed the wells would provide safe supplies for families, otherwise dependent on dirty surface water which was killing up to 250,000 children a year.
Yet the move, spearheaded by the UN and the World Bank, was fatally flawed. Although checks were carried out for certain contaminants in the newly sourced water, it was not tested for arsenic, which occurs naturally in the Ganges and Brahmaputra deltas. By the early 1990s, when it was found that up to half of 10 million tube wells were contaminated with arsenic, Bangladesh was confronting a huge problem. The World Health Organisation called it "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history... The scale of the environmental disaster is greater than any seen before; it is beyond the accidents in Bhopal, India, in 1984, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986".
Some subsequent studies predicted that, ultimately, one person in 10 who drinks water from the arsenical wells would go on to die from lung, bladder or skin cancer. Even though some of these conditions take decades to develop, by 2004, about 3,000 people a year were dying from arsenic-related cancers.
Since the 1990s, organisations such as Unicef have led the effort to develop and provide alternative sources of water, such as collecting rainwater and filtering surface water. Slowly, the percentage of families exposed to contaminated water has fallen. But a survey conducted by Unicef last year found that 13 per cent of people are still using contaminated water. "That equates to 20 million people," says Yan Zheng, a Unicef arsenic specialist based in Dhaka. "The health impacts vary. The skin lesions that arsenic causes are well recognised by the villagers. But the cancer and cardiovascular diseases are still not fully recognised by the villagers and some health professionals." Ms Zheng says a recent study showed significantly higher death rates for those exposed to arsenic: "It was as you would expect – the higher the exposure, the higher the risk.".
Government and UN officials will publish a new report tomorrow calling for urgent action to tackle what remains a huge problem of contamination, both from drinking water and from crops such as rice that are irrigated with contaminated water. According to the report, being released to coincide with World Water Day, arsenic poses health risks to a significant proportion of the population, though children are particularly vulnerable.
The skin lesions caused by arsenicosis are just the first sign of many possibly fatal health problems. The lesions still attract widespread social stigma in Bangladesh, with many people until recently believing they were the result of a curse.
"Urgent action is needed to refocus the attention of the nation towards an arsenic-safe environment," says Renata Lok Dessallien, the UN chief in Bangladesh. "Concerted efforts by the government and all stakeholders are necessary to reinvigorate arsenic monitoring and mitigation efforts, and to conduct comprehensive research on emerging threats."
The arsenic contaminating so much of Bangladesh's water occurs naturally in the water courses of the rivers that sustain hundreds of millions of people. Many underground sources around the world suffer from arsenic contamination and there have been health issues in countries ranging from Argentina to Taiwan and India. There is also considerable arsenic contamination in parts of the US.
In Bangladesh, a fierce row continues to rage over the responsibility for the massive contamination. While aid groups and the UN insist their testing at the time met international standards, others have argued that there should have been a more thorough awareness of the local geology and topography. Yet more have said that the UN and the World Bank were slow to acknowledge their role in the tragedy.
Dipankar Chakraborti, of the Jadavpur University in West Bengal and a leading expert, says the level of arsenic contamination in Bangladesh is worse than anywhere else globally. He says the international bodies have never fully acknowledged their role in a crisis that will be played out for years to come. "It is a major problem," he says. "We have found that when we went back to people with skin lesions whom we interviewed 15 years ago, about 30 per cent of them had developed some sort of cancer."
Last year scientists concluded that arsenic entered the water in tube wells as a result of thousands of ponds that were dug across Bangladesh to provide soil for flood protection. Disturbing the ground released the organic carbon, which in turn causes arsenic to leach from sediments. The scientists from MIT in Boston concluded that one solution would be to dig "deeper drinking-water wells, below the influence of the ponds".
Meanwhile, educating the public about the dangers of arsenic poisoning, and disabusing them of the widespread idea that its effects are the result of a curse, or infectious, is essential. "Raising awareness among people on the danger of arsenic is essential," says Bangladesh's minister of health, Dr A F M Ruhal Haque. "Health workers can disseminate this message, while the government will continue to invest in screening and treatment of arsenicosis patients in affected districts."
Britain's toxic beer
Arsenic was a pervasive contaminant in Britain and the US in the 19th century. It was used in wallpaper, fabric dyes, and even as a colouring in confectionery.
One of the worst instances of man-made arsenical poisoning came in Lancashire in late 1900. Large numbers of people in the Manchester and Salford areas displayed symptoms of what was thought to be simple over-indulgence. But, as the cases mounted, and people began to turn up with blackened skin and other tell-tale signs, arsenic poisoning was suspected. This was confirmed, and eventually traced to the firm that supplied sugar used in brewing.
Before the poisonings had run their course, more than 6,000 people had been affected, and 80 of these died. The episode was instrumental in securing more rigorous legislation on food safety.