Villagers in Daroot-Korgon, high in southwest Kyrgyzstan’s Chon-Alai range, can finally see the ground. But following the harshest winter in memory, many herders are facing a struggle to stay on their feet.
The hard winter proved inconvenient for city dwellers, and catastrophic for livestock in the highlands. Over 7,500 animals starved to death in Chon-Alai district this winter, according to an official count. Throughout Kyrgyzstan, close to 25,000 animals are thought to have perished due to the prolonged winter. Because cold weather set in early, herders quickly went through their feed for livestock, and heavy snowfall meant that fresh supplies couldn’t reach the region. In areas like Chon-Alai, where the sale and purchase of livestock drives the local economy, the losses have been devastating.
“We have never seen such a winter,” said a villager in Daroot-Korgon, some four bumpy hours’ drive – when the road is clear – from Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital. “Some people say the winter was bad like this in 1968,” the villager added, going over the deaths for the district: 717 cows, 281 yaks, 328 horses, and 6,202 sheep.
Of course winter is no stranger to the high-altitude Alai Valley, which stretches beneath the towering peaks of the Pamir Mountains on the border with Tajikistan. During the warm months, locals try to stockpile feed and hay to sustain their animals during the coldest months, when even the lowest pastures are buried in snow. In a typical year, villagers expect two or three months of the harshest conditions. “This year was different,” said one veterinarian. Winter began in October and lasted into April.
Early snowfall shut down the pasture grazing season months earlier than residents expected. The snow also blocked roads connecting villages to each other, and to the outside world. “First it snowed one meter. Then it snowed two meters. We have had more than six months of winter. It was difficult to travel,” said the veterinarian. Snow accumulation in many parts of the country was more than four times the annual average. Because the ground was frozen, villagers say they dumped dead animals’ bodies in rivers and barren landscapes.
“We can usually sell some animals for money to spend on products throughout the year. This year we don’t know where the money will come from,” said Shahzada Alimkulova, a villager in Achy-Suu, a village tucked under the 7,134-meter Lenin Peak. In some parts Achy-Suu, the snow is still three meters deep. “We couldn’t bring feed to the animals and they all died.”
In late March and early April, Bishkek mobilized to help by transporting feed to local markets, says Aziz Ashiraliev, the akim, or chief executive, of Chon-Alai district. The government allocated almost three million som ($64,000) to bring feed from the north, he said. But for some, the supplies have arrived too late.
Exactly what the government did for people in Chon-Alai and whether officials should have done more depends on whom you ask. But one thing is clear: At some point in early March, food for animals became very expensive, very quickly. “Between March 7 and March 29 one bale of hay cost 700 or 800 som,” Ashiraliev explained. “In February that same bale cost 165 to 190 som.” During a normal winter, villages in Chon-Alai sell hay to other regions.
The akim said he has requested emergency aid from central government officials in Bishkek. “We are waiting for their response,” he added. One parliamentary deputy in Bishkek has suggested giving up a day’s salary, with the collected money going toward relief efforts.
The Ministry of Emergency Situations is also seeking $2.62 million in aid from the international community. More than half of the requested amount is targeted to replenish fuel and construction supplies (to shore up riverbanks and avalanche-prone cliffs above roads). Those resources were used much earlier this year than anticipated, leaving little reserve for emergency response efforts in the coming months.
While it is impossible to predict six months of harsh winter, villagers realize they must take more precautions in the future. “This year people have seen what can happen so they can better prepare themselves for the future,” said Ashiraliev, the akim. But he added that it was not just the harsh winter that created this situation. “Last summer there was too much sun and not enough water,” Ashiraliev recalled. “People were unable to prepare enough fodder.”
Villagers are hoping this summer brings better weather. But even if Mother Nature is kind, some herders will still have to cope with uncertainty. “We plan to plant more feed this year,” said one herder in Daroot-Korgon.
But that will be difficult: “Some people fed their seeds to the animals.”
Michael Igoe is a freelance reporter specializing in environmental issues in Central Asia.