2019 Severe Snow Disaster in Dzatoe, Tibet

Dzatoe snow disaster

A herd of yak covered in snow in Dzatoe.

In the past three months, there have been multiple heavy snowfalls in Yulshul Prefecture. Among its six counties, Dzatoe, Dritoe, Chumarlep and Tridu counties have been affected badly by the consecutive snowstorms. Dzatoe County is the most severely affected county from all Tibetan areas in this winter.

Dzatoe is a pure pastoral county which has an area of 30,161 square kilometers. Since the end of October last year, when the winter started, there have been 30 snowfalls in Dzatoe, and currently deep icy snow sheets cover 70% of its territory. The accumulated snow on the ground has gotten harder and harder as the temperature has gone lower and lower.

Affected grazing lands are covered by 8 inches and more of icy snow, which has put livestock and wildlife in a difficult situation for a prolonged time. As a result, not only have a large number of yaks and sheep died, but also a large number of wild animals, including blue sheep, white lipped deer, Tibetan gazelles, wild yaks, and several species of birds such as Tibetan snow cock starved to death. The situation there has been getting worse.

Dzachen, Aktoe, Mogshung, Tradham and Kyitoe are the most affected 5 townships in Dzatoe. Many nomadic families from 18 nomadic villages of the above listed five townships have already lost all of their livestock. Nearly 20,000 head of livestock died in Dzatoe County by March 1st, 2019, and most of them were yaks. Because there is no grass to eat, the starved yaks even ate the fur of dead yaks as seen in an online video clip.

It is common that more yaks die than sheep, goats, or horses do when animals have to struggle to get grass from deep snow as in this disastrous winter. This is due to the different strategies of grazing methods used by those animals in the snow. A horse, sheep or goats uses its nose and front legs to stroke and dig snow to get grass. A yak only uses its nose to stroke the snow to get the grass underneath, but it is not capable of using its front legs to dig. On these grazing methods in the snow by the horse, sheep and yak, we have folk story as the following:

Long, long ago, after creating the world and all creatures, Sipai Phamani, the couple who were parents to all, decided to send the yak, the horse and the sheep to live on Tibetan Plateau forever. They told the three that Tibetan Plateau is pleasant to live in summer, but the winter is long and snow a lot there, and asked the animals how they will get grass from snow-covered pastures. The horse answered, “I am going to use my nose and long front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass.” “I will use my nose and short front legs to stroke and dig the snow to get the grass as well,” the sheep said. The yak laughed at the sheep and the horse, and then said, “I can get the grass more easily than those two, using only my powerful nose. My nose will blast out heat to blow off or melt away the snow.”

Sadly, the yak has never been able to do such a thing.

Even some herders in severely affected areas in Dzatoe have reached the predicament of not having enough food to eat. They pastures are located in remote places and far away from towns. They normally go shopping in the towns by horseback with pack animals. Even though there are no formal roads or highways for vehicles, some nomads, especially young people, like riding motorcycles or driving cars to travel between their homes in the pastures and the towns. However, in situation like this, almost no pasture in the affected areas is accessible by cars or motorcycles at all.

Yak dung is the only fuel for herders who live in high-altitude areas such as those affected 5 townships in Dzatoe where no tree grows. Herdsmen rely on yak dung for cooking and heating. It has been very difficult for herdsmen to get dried yak dung to make fire, because of the three-month long low temperatures and consecutive snowfalls; dung becomes frozen in the cold and snow.

So far, local herdsmen have received little assistance from the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities have kept saying that they have been concerning the welfare of those Tibetan people in the snow disaster affected areas dearly. They say, however, remote locations of those nomadic families and the accumulated snow on the roads made them difficult for transporting relief supplies to the affected areas. Some Chinese officials even urge herdsmen to slaughter or sell all of the remaining yaks and sheep while they are alive to avoid greater loss. What local Tibetan herdsmen really need is getting help to save their remaining livestock, but not slaughter or sell them in time like this.

Some local Lamas, such as Karma Gyume Rinpoche of Dzogchen Monastery in early February bought 31 big trucks of hay from some other region to distribute them to local nomad’s families. Tibetans from Derge County gathered 20 trucks of hay, barley and dried turnips and brought them all the way to Dzatoe County. However, these are far from meeting the need for disaster relief.

Even their yaks and sheep had died and are dying; local Tibetans spared the hay they have to needy animals in the wild. Tibetan monks and lay people carry hay to the mountains to feed blue sheep, deer, Tibetan gazelles and others herbivores.

Nomads in Dzatoe are in a difficult situation. They are struggling to survival in the biggest snow disaster ever since 1953 and really need help.

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Rinchen Tashi

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