STATE EMERGENCY COMMISSION:

FEBRUARY 25 2010 11:28h

Extreme winter spells disaster for Mongolia

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Officials in Mongolia have declared more than half of the impoverished country a disaster area due to harsh winter weather.

ULAN BATOR, February 25, 2010 (AFP) - Officials in Mongolia have declared more than half of the impoverished country a disaster area due to harsh winter weather, as the UN on Thursday launched a programme to help struggling nomads.

About 2.5 million livestock had perished nationwide as of Monday, the government's State Emergency Commission reported this week, after weeks of persistent snow and temperatures below minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).

The government estimates three million more will die before the cold weather ends in June.

Total economic losses so far are estimated at 62 million dollars, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Nearly two-thirds of the landlocked Asian country has been buried under 20 to 40 centimetres (eight to 16 inches) of snow, making grazing impossible for the country's herds of cows, yaks, goats, sheep, horses and camels.

"Livestock is the cornerstone of existence for so many Mongolians and many people have lost all their direct income and food source," said Akbar Usmani, the representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Mongolia.

The UNDP on Thursday announced a plan to pay 60,000 herders to clean and bury the carcasses of the dead livestock to prevent the spread of disease before the spring thaw begins.

No strangers to harsh conditions, Mongolians call such extreme weather a "Dzud": a severely cold winter after a dry summer that combined mean food shortages for the livestock that generations have depended on for survival.

A third of Mongolia's 2.6 million people lead nomadic lives and depend entirely on livestock for a living.

Mongolia has approved a special 2.6-million-dollar budget for emergency aid to Dzud-affected areas, but the UN says it will need at least six million dollars more to care for surviving animals and clear the carcasses of the dead.

The State Emergency Commission has warned the snow also means there is a high risk of floods once spring comes.

A devastating winter in 2001 forced many Mongolian herder families to abandon their way of life and move to cities.