When Winter Comes


By Kelsey Larson

In Mongolia, the most sacred color is blue, the shade of the endless sky. Blue flags flutter on the fences of shrines to Genghis Khan,  mark the sacred rock cairns that dot the Gobi desert, and are draped upon the necks of prized mares and cows. The sky is sacred to Mongolians, and for good reason: for the Mongolian herder, the whims of the weather determine their prosperity. When I asked my host father, Dugarsuren—a herder whose family shrine holds a plethora of racing medals—about the winter, his normal grin vanished. “The winter is always very hard,” he told me. “Only the best herders can make it through when the winter is very bad.” Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and home to half of the nation’s population, is the coldest capital city in the world. Winter  temperatures can plunge to -40°F, and most of the arid country gets between one and eight inches of precipitation a year. As I crossed the Mongolian countryside this November, the cold snaked into my lungs as soon as I took my first breath outside the warmth of the yurt, sharp crystals biting in my chest.

Despite the harshness of the climate, Mongolian herders have survived and thrived for thousands of years. The combination of long winters and little rain leave Mongolia with only a thin layer of topsoil and an extremely short growing season. To make the most of Mongolia’s sparse grass, the herders raise shaggy, hardy breeds of sheep, goats, horses, cows, and yaks. Dwelling in felt tents called gers, Mongolian herders live a nomadic lifestyle, typically moving four to twelve times a year in pursuit of the best grass.  But still, a winter with too much snow, too little snow, too much cold, or ice-creating alternations of cold and warmth can confound the herders’ preparations, killing a large share of Mongolia’s animals in a natural disaster called a dzud.

Gingerly sipping mugs of fermented mare’s milk and hot yak milk tea around the stoves of herder households, I asked my hosts about the challenges of dzuds. Some herders told me about the help their families gave them in moving their animals or sending money from the cities to help rebuild herds, a traditional extension of kinship networks. Some told me about the hundred-kilometer rides to better pastures on which they had gambled their family’s livelihoods. Most spoke with pride of the dried dung and wood they had piled for fuel, the shelters they had made. But in the worst years, when dzuds swept the countryside, “No one can help,” one herding grandmother said. “You help if you can, but if you help too much, your animals will die instead.”

Cattle browse at the edge of a pasture showing signs of overgrazing, an increasing problem on the Mongolian steppe (Larson/TYG). Above: Dugarsuren, an experienced Mongolian pastureland (Larson/TYG).

Two atrocious dzuds in 2000 and 2001 pushed the lives of many herders out of this subsistence balance. In those two years, one third of Mongolia’s livestock died. “It is the most challenging thing, a winter like that,” my 41-year old host father told me, “so many people lost their animals.” Faced with widespread devastation, the Mongolian government and international organizations struggled to provide emergency relief services to rural families. Some herders, especially the rookies who had only picked up herding after the end of the Soviet Union, lost their entire herds and were forced to move to the capital and settle in the slums surrounding Ulaanbaatar, where cheap Russian vodka was easy to find—but jobs still were not.

That search for a way to protect herders’ livelihoods led to the establishment of a nationwide program called index-based livestock insurance (IBLI). In designing an insurance program for herders, the Mongolian government had to take into account the extremely low population density of the Mongolian countryside, which would make it impossible for insurance salespeople to calculate specific premiums for each herder and to verify individual losses. Instead, IBLI bases its payments on overall mortality of a livestock species within a soum, an administrative unit similar to a county. So if 15 percent of a soum’s goats died in a given winter, a herder in that soum who bought insurance to cover 100 goats would receive a cash payment equivalent to 15 goats, regardless of how many of their herd had died.

Goats, a staple food and profitable source of cashmere for Mongolian herders, graze on fresh pasture on the steppe (Larson/TYG).

This program design helped create a nationwide insurance market for the first time in Mongolia. T. Oyunbat, a World Bank risk assessment official working on the project, explained to me over a couple mugs of tea in a trendy Ulaanbaatar cafe: “We increased insurance awareness overall across the country because before the program started, all the insurance market was concentrated only in the city. Most of the insurance companies didn’t have a single branch.” Beyond providing funding and a financially viable model for the companies to expand, the Mongolian government improved information systems for tracking livestock numbers. As a researcher, it took me only fifteen minutes in one of the newly established State Statistical Centers to get data on livestock population, human population, and livestock mortality broken down by county over the last ten years. With this detailed information made easily available, insurance companies feel a level of comfort with working in the Mongolian context that they never have before.


After selling the insurance scheme to the companies, Mongolia has faced the far more difficult task of selling the insurance scheme to the actual herders. The manager of the Bayanhongor province’s IBLI program, who asked that I not use his name, explained to me that when they first established the program in 2006, “we had to teach all of the herders about the insurance. We hired two insurance representatives in every soum, and in the summer, they went to every household to explain to them individually what the insurance was.” As more than half an hour of travel can pass from one household to the next, this is no small task. The outreach has made an impact: some 95 percent of the herders that I interviewed listed the insurance representatives as their main source of information about the program. Most were already familiar with the program and how it had worked, especially those in the area that had been part of the initial pilot in 2006.

An early October snowstorm dusts a building at the edge of a Buddhist monastery with a layer of white (Larson/TYG).
An early October snowstorm dusts a building at the edge of a Buddhist monastery with a layer of white (Larson/TYG).

While the concept of formal insurance was new to herders, families like my hosts’ already had their own structures for risk management in place. Herders place the bulk of their trust in friends and family. My countryside host mother made a dozen calls a day, chatting and laughing while holding the cell phone up in the corner of the ger she swore got the best reception. “I call my daughter, my sisters, and we talk about the weather and the animals and how we are doing,” she explained on tiptoes. Even when everyone is doing well, herders freely send gifts of livestock or money to family and friends. In a typical exchange, my middle-class Ulaanbaatar host family kept a couple butchered sheep that had been gifts from their country relatives in a freezer, and they regularly sent those same relatives gifts of money and clothes. This network of gifts flowing between country and city sometimes allows for unequal exchanges. In the dzud of 2009, for instance, my host father sent to his hard-hit cousin enough money to buy a couple of cows to replace his losses. Rural people also support one another, which has perhaps an even larger effect upon winter preparations. Herders help watch one another’s livestock, help each other move between campsites, and sometimes even collectively pool their animals so that they are able to send the long-legged animals like cows and horses to one wintering place while keeping the short-legged goats and sheep closer by.

These traditional techniques bolster herders through many tough years, but the well runs dry if the winter gets particularly harsh. In years like 2009, when record snows and low temperatures wiped out 20 percent of Mongolian livestock, families were too overwhelmed to help one another out in a significant fashion. “I was too sick to look after the animals properly,” one elderly herder explained to me. “My son couldn’t do it alone, so we lost most of the sheep because there was no one to look after them.” Some 90 percent of the herders I interviewed said that the winter had a severely negative impact on their quality of life in the next year.

Blue prayer flags flutter at the entrance of a shrine to Chinggis Khan.
Blue prayer flags flutter at the entrance of a shrine to Chinggis Khan (Larson/TYG).


This particular winter also proved to be the first test for the new insurance program. For the government, it was an overwhelming success. “With the insurance, all the big players knew what their job was when the dzud hit,” Oyunbat, the World Bank specialist, explained. “We gave out the insurance funds, got some help out that way, so the government could focus aid on people who needed it.” With private insurance supporting herders in part, the government could more easily buy adequate food and fodder aid. In areas where the program was in place during the dzud, subscription rates rose drastically in the following years, jumping from 21 percent to 35 percent of herders in one province. “Herders were skeptical about the program before then,” the program coordinator for Bayanhongor province said, “but when we gave the payouts, they realized ‘oh wow, this is something that can really help.’” Especially among rich herders, buying insurance became a useful extra way to balance their risk.

But for the poor herders hovering around the 200-animal subsistence level, the program provides the least support. One elderly woman, whose son was out watching their small number of yaks and goats, said that “the insurance is not good because you do not get money sometimes, when you lose only a few animals. I lose animals to wolves, and the insurance doesn’t pay me anything.” For herders with little cash income, the payments on insurance can seem like an uncertain gamble that might or might not give them money back when they need it. When the dzud hit, these herders got relief primarily from the government, which offered a restocking program that lent farmers pregnant cows and sheep to be paid back in kind three years later.


By November, the Mongolian landscape had turned the brown of dried grass.  Even the pine trees had yellowed and lost their needles. The deep freeze of winter had already begun to settle the land into silence. Here, the risks of nature’s wrath are too great for any one family to shoulder without help, and the dangers are only growing as global warming makes Mongolia’s weather even more volatile. Creating insurance is a step in the right direction, but it will not be enough on its own for Mongolian herding to survive.

As my host father stopped at his brother’s ger to pick up a goat that would be part of the winter slaughter, I looked across the still and endless landscape overarched by the blue sky. No sign of humanity existed aside from the tire tracks that exposed a duller grey of dust among the brown, paths marking the routes nomads had crossed to see family, sell animals, or move herds towards better weather. In the vast openness of the steppe, it is easy to find a space to be alone, but it is nearly impossible to live alone.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is an Economics major in Silliman College. Contact her at kelsey.larson@yale.edu.