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The coming spring promises more, not less, hardship for Mongolia’s nomad households. The pastures are covered with snow, with no signs of sprouts emerging. The stocks of hay built up last autumn are already depleted, and many sheep and horses — essential assets of the nomads — are on the verge of starvation.

The snow damage, now in its second year, is likely to be the worst since the end of World War II. A U.N. relief group estimates that 6 million head of livestock, or roughly 20 percent of all livestock in the republic, will have died in the five months beginning last December. An estimated 3 million head already starved to death last winter. That is more than Mongolia’s population of 2.6 million. A Japanese volunteer just back from near Ulan Bator, the capital, gives a grim account of animals dying daily. Starving beasts, she says, were so sick they could not even take liquid food.

After the end of the Cold War, the former communist state of Mongolia embarked on a painful program of democratic and market reforms. While the campaign created confusion in the modern industrial sector, it spared the traditional livestock industry that supports the country’s predominantly nomadic population. However, two years of heavy snow have dealt a crippling blow to that key industry. The Central Asian republic now faces a national crisis. International groups are coming to the rescue, but geography and climate appear to be working against them. Recently, a U.N. helicopter on a survey mission crashed, killing nine people, including an NHK reporter.

Mongolia has great expectations of Japan. Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar, head of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, arrived in Tokyo last Tuesday for a six-day visit. In a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Thursday, Mr. Enkhbayar — who returned to power in last July’s democratic election after four years in opposition — reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and a market economy and requested further Japanese assistance. Mongolia, along with Myanmar, Taiwan and others, is among the countries or areas in Asia that are friendliest toward Japan. This country should respond positively to the Mongolian crisis.

Sandwiched as it is between Russia and China, Mongolia is concerned about Beijing’s growing influence. Its one-time patron, the Soviet Union, is gone. The Mongolian people, anxious to establish genuine independence, in fact fear that their country might come under Chinese control, just as the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia did. In an apparent diplomatic balancing act, the landlocked republic is seeking to bolster relations with Japan and other free-world nations. The ruling MPRP is reported to be planning to change its name, a legacy from the communist era, at a party convention late this month.

One tangible result of the Enkhbayar visit was the signing of an investment-protection agreement to smooth the way for Japanese business ventures in Mongolia. That is welcome, as is a Japanese pledge to provide further relief for the snow damage. Japan is giving more government aid to Mongolia than any other nation in the world. When it comes to private-level assistance, however, Japan lags far behind the United States and major European states.

In this regard, the activities of Peace Wins Japan, a nonprofit organization, are worth noting. The group rushed to the aid of Mongolia in 1996 when the republic was hit by a great prairie fire. Subsequently, the organization stationed a permanent representative in Ulan Bator and, working together with local officials, helped tackle various domestic problems, including the plight of so-called street children. This year, the PWJ is set to launch an “apprentice program” for new nomad arrivals hit particularly hard by the snowfall. The idea is to encourage those people — former city dwellers — to live with long-standing nomad families that have made it through the winter so that they can learn firsthand how to fight the snow problem.

The PWJ will pay participating families for their cooperation. It also will provide them with the necessary goods, such as animal feed and snow fences. Group members, including local representatives, will visit the families to foster relations and help the victims become independent quickly. The group is asking the Japanese government for assistance. It is also soliciting donations from the private sector.

We hope the project will succeed. Foreign assistance will produce satisfactory results if it is provided in ways that effectively combine public and private efforts. This is particularly true of grass-roots projects like the PWJ programs. Given Japan’s poor track record in this area, the government needs to provide more support, financial and otherwise, to such private initiatives.

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