The Impact of the Dzud Disaster in Mongolia on Older People: An Assessment and Recommendations for Organizations Involved in Relief Efforts
Mark A. Ritchie, Ph.D., Research Consultant
Prepared for HelpAge International1
1. Introduction and Background to the Dzud
Mongolian herders are experiencing the aftermath of the worst winter in 30 years, with at least 1.8 million livestock dead2 and climbing, with some estimates of total livestock deaths eventually reaching over 5 million; and with over 400,000 people affected. This natural disaster (or dzud in Mongolian) is a complex interaction of natural causes (such as drought, cold weather and heavy snow) as well as the influence of human-caused effects (such as over-grazing). The term dzud can be described as "livestock famine" with a high risk of famine for humans in the affected areas.3
A severe drought in the summer of 1999, coupled with rodent infestations in many areas, led to a decline in the quality of grasslands on which herds depend. During the winter of 1999/2000 snowfalls began earlier than normal and temperatures dropped to abnormally low levels (minus 46 degrees centigrade in some areas). This was compounded by a number of human caused factors, such as overstocking of some herds, overgrazing, inadequate hay preparation during Autumn and a lack of veterinary services.
Mongolian herders depend almost entirely on their herds for survival, and the death of animals, or the complete loss of a herd, can be devastating to a family, both economically and psychologically. Families depend on the animals for meat, income (from sales of wool or cashmere), milk products, as well as heating (from dried animal dung). The loss of a significant number of animals, or the loss of all of a family’s animals, is a tremendous blow to a family.
The impact of the dzud is not limited to the winter period, however, as livestock deaths continue to increase. The spring brings with it cold and windy weather, chilling livestock which are already weakened. The spring birthing season is also difficult, as young animals are at risk of death due to exposure, and their mothers may not be able to produce enough milk for them due to their own near-starvation from the dzud. Many expect that the worst is yet to come, as weakened livestock finally die, erosion further degrades grazing areas once the rains start in June, and Spring floods may be 2-3 times higher than normal in some areas, potentially threatening both animals and people in river valleys and other drainage areas. Some estimate that it may take 2-4 years to recover from this disaster.
As the dzud and its aftermath destroys the livelihood of many families, an increase in urban immigration is expected, bringing with it additional stresses in urban areas (primarily Ulaanbaator but also aimag centers) as more people compete for scare employment opportunities.
The dzud also varies across provinces (aimags) and even within individual aimags, as some districts (soums) were more affected than others. The impact of the dzud is not limited to only those provinces which were the hardest hit. Many herders have moved beyond their traditional grazing areas in search of better pasture. This puts additional pressure on areas outside of those directly affected, and may place those areas at risk for further environmental damage in the future.
The death toll on livestock by province (aimag) in thousands.
Source: IFRC, Mongolia: Snowfalls Appeal No. 5/2000 Situation Report No. 3.
MRCS statistics of the impact of the dzud (as of 30 March, 2000)
Number of provinces (aimangs) affected: 13
Affected households: 77,833
Affected people: 412,00
Livestock losses: 1,787,742
Women over 55 affected: 27,814 (possibly not accurate)
Men over 60 affected: 13,302 (possibly not accurate)
The Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) is the only organization at this point that provides age desegregated data on the impact of the disaster, and includes older people (women over 55 and men over 60) in its statistics. They are still investigating the data on older men and older women, as they feel that the large discrepancy in numbers between men and women is probably an error (27 thousand for women and 13 thousand for men).
2. The Position of Older People in Mongolian Society
Older people in Mongolia are still - at least in rural areas - largely integrated into families, and are still respected and cared for by their children as they grow old. In a brief PRA in Gobi Altai (April 1 to 4, 2000) and in interviews with NGO workers and others, it was clear that older people are - for the most part - still being cared for in Mongolia by their families. Where state support (such as the pension scheme) exists, it supplements and reinforces mutual care within families. Older people remain economically active into old age, both directly (by herding animals, etc.) as well as indirectly (through childcare, etc.).
Interviews with rural older Mongolians, as well as others in urban areas confirmed that strong social sanctions exist for families which do not support their older members. Even in situations of extreme poverty, older people are supported by families as much as is possible. Nonetheless, within this context of overall support and family care for older people, the economic transition in Mongolia is putting stress on family and community support systems, and increased urbanization is also threatening the support systems of older people. This can be especially difficult for older women, who tend to outlive older men - leading to higher rates of widowhood - and placing them at even greater risk.
By and large those areas where the dzud has had an impact are those rural areas where support systems for older people have, until now, remained strong.
3. Risks to Older People in Disaster Situations
Older people are both a risk group during a disaster, as well as a resource for younger people during a disaster. Older people are at risk due to medical conditions, nutritional needs and other related aspects of aging. Older people can be a resource due to their experience as herders and experience with past disasters. It is important to recognize both of these aspects of older people’s lives in rural Mongolia in order to adequately support them in a sustainable way. Relief which ignores older people could potentially harm the currently strong family support system for older people, and relief efforts need to be careful not to create a culture of dependency for older people.
Research by HelpAge International and others has shown that older people face particular risks and challenges in disaster situations - both during the disaster and in the relief phase that follows a disaster.4
Often, older people themselves will forego aid and assistance in favor of younger family members. One older Mongolian interviewed in a newswire story (AP picked up by CNN) is a good example:
"After June, we will be very hungry," said Tserendorj, a 73-year-old nomadic woman... "But we are old people," she said, cradling a naked child in her lap. "Our lives are over anyway. Our worry is for these kids and how they will live."
The statement "our lives are over anyway" can be taken by relief agencies as confirmation that they should not focus specifically on older people, and can reinforce (or create) mistaken beliefs that older people do not need to be specifically targeted. In a disaster situation often older members of families will focus their efforts on the survival of the younger members. Nonetheless, this does not mean that older people should not be included, or specifically targeted where necessary, in disaster situations.
HelpAge International research has shown that older people identify five key issues in emergency situations:
- Health: Access to services, appropriate food, water, sanitation, psychosocial needs.
- Family and Social: separation, dependants, security, changes in social structures, loss of status.
- Economic and Legal: income, land , information, documentation, skills training.
- Mobility: incapacity, population movement and transport, disability
- Basic Needs: shelter, fuel, clothing, bedding, household items.
Older people’s experience and influence makes them well-placed to take leadership roles in disaster situations. Older people often have knowledge of traditional survival strategies that younger members of the community lack. Older women contribute in many ways, both as care givers and through teaching. Because older people are more likely to be aid givers than receivers, this means that support for older people supports their families and communities.
Research by HelpAge International into the impact of disasters on older people has shown that older people do have specific concerns and issues in a disaster situation that is different than those for younger people.
1. Isolation creates vulnerability. Destruction of families in disaster situations often destroys the support systems on which older people depend. Being abandoned by their families, to guard belongings, etc., places older people at greater risk than in non-disaster situations. Often in disasters aid agencies focus on unaccompanied children, when in fact there may be far more unaccompanied older people.
2. A lack of consultation. Older people are often marginalized in disaster situations, and not consulted about their needs or concerns. Often relief operations fail to see or understand the needs and contributions of older people. Untested assumptions about the care and respect given to older people, along with assumptions about their needs leads to significant increases in the vulnerability of older people. Sometimes older people cannot reach relief points in time to receive aid, as younger people have already received the scarce resources. Without consultation with older people, and specific plans for assistance to older people, older people can miss available supplies, or what is available is not appropriate.
3. Negative images and assumptions. Negative images and assumptions are another risk older people face in emergencies. Older people are often seen as a "poor investment" for skills and credit programs, ignoring the range of coping strategies and contributions older people do make. Often, the incapacity of older people in emergencies is often confused with and then dismissed as the disabling effects of ageing.
4. Source of support. Few NGOs or other organizations include older people in their target groups. This weakens support for older people as resources - especially scare in a disaster situation - are funneled to other groups, or targeted ineffectively.
5. Access to services. This is a key issue with older people, who often find that they cannot easily access centralized relief services due to mobility problems, a lack of physical strength, the need to remain behind and care for possessions or care for others. Often older people report that aid provisions are not appropriate, as they cannot eat food rations, or could not digest the food. Supplemental feeding programs rarely include malnourished adults. It is widely assumed that general assistance in disaster situations will assist older people, and this is often not the case.
Because so few NGOs and other organizations focus on older people and their needs, NGOs and others are often quite mistaken about the needs and problems of older people. HAI’s research has shown that there are often very large differences in what is identified as a problem in an emergency between older people and NGOs - based on the incorrect perception on the part of NGOs and others of the situation of older people.
In disaster situations, older people have consistently asked:
- To be seen heard and understood.
- To have equal access to essential support services.
- To have their potential and contributions recognised and supported.
Organizations seeking to work with older people in emergency situations should:
- Find out where and who the older people are.
- Devise and provide accessible services.
- Recognise and support the potential and contributions of older people.
Especially in a situation - like in Mongolia - where older people are still valued and cared for by their families, every effort needs to be made to reinforce the social capacity of families and communities to care for their older members, and to ensure that older people can still be productive members of their communities.
4. The Impact of the Dzud On Older People
There is, at present, very little information on the impact of the dzud on older people specifically. Generally the economic impact of the loss of livestock and food sources can be expected to impact older people as well, but as yet no specific assessment of older people’s needs and concerns has been carried out. Based on reports and interviews, however, some initial impressions of the impact of the dzud on older people can be drawn. Age specific risks do exist in this situation, and some of them can be identified even with the limited information.
1. One common pattern that seems to be emerging is older people being left to care for children or belongings while younger family members go in search of better pastures. The death of horses, or the few surviving horses moving to better pasture with younger family members, further places older people in a vulnerable position due to mobility limitations, while increased demands (for childcare, etc.) are placed on them.
2. Older people, along with others, are facing serious limitations in terms of food availability, and the availability of heating fuel (dried dung). One NGO reported that an older man, left to care for the grandchildren, was resorting to burning some of the wooden poles used to support the felt gher houses in order to keep warm. This is not an age-specific impact, but is one that older people are going to be facing, compounded by mobility limitations.
3. The risk of family disruption is tremendous, both from families travelling long distances, as well as the risk (and probability) of families migrating to urban areas, and the potential breakdown of the support systems for older people there.
4. Health services are not available in remote areas, and people often have to walk great distances to reach essential health services. With the death of horses, older people are going to be even more constrained in their ability to reach health services.
Our understanding of the impact of this disaster on older people is limited. As recommended below, agencies involved in assessing the impact of the dzud need to include the views of older people in order to ensure that we understand how older people are being affected by the dzud and what can be done to help them in its aftermath.
5. Recommendations to Organizations Involved in the Dzud Relief Efforts
1. Older people need to be considered a resource in this (and other) disaster situations. Older people have experienced disasters such as dzud before, and can give advice to younger herders.
2. Natural leadership positions that older people often fulfill need to be respected and supported during relief efforts. Care must be taken not to work through only younger people in disaster affected areas. MRCS has reported that some older people are more optimistic than younger people, as they have experienced - and survived - past dzud disasters, total loss of herds, etc. These older people could provide community based sources of psychological support.
3. Agencies involved in relief efforts, both short term (e.g. food) and long term (e.g. restocking of herds), should seek to reinforce the position of older people as sources of knowledge. Care should be taken that "contact herders" and other key people involved in the relief efforts include older people so as not to disrupt existing patterns of respect in rural Mongolia. Any training programs should seek to included older people, as well as any resource management groups (e.g. for management of water sources).
4. Assessments of the evolving disaster need to specifically seek out the views of older people, both to assess their particular needs and to gain the historical perspective on the disaster that only older people possess. Participatory assessments including older people in Mongolia is both appropriate and necessary, especially in a disaster situation. Encouragingly, because older people are integrated into the lives of herding families, many of the interviews by the UNDMT and other assessment teams (e.g. World Vision/ADRA) included talks with older people. This should continue and be a more intentional part of the relief efforts. Every effort to represent the views of older people will help to reinforce their respected position in Mongolian society, and can help to deal with possible social dislocation caused by the dzud.
5. The needs and perspectives of older women - especially widows - need to be assessed and valued. Older women can often be doubly disadvantaged - both from age and from their gender. Relief efforts need to make sure that any particular needs or vulnerabilities that older women face are adequately addressed.
6. Older people should be considered a "vulnerable group" so that age-appropriate relief supplies (such as food and vitamins) will reach older people. This needs to be done with care, however, so that dependency relationships do not develop, and existing social networks of adult children caring for older parents are not disrupted. The UN Appeal document does not mention older people as a vulnerable group, and only focuses specific types of aid on pregnant women, lactating mothers and children. Further appeals should specifically target older people, and not assume that aid and assistance will reach them, or meet their needs.
7. Relief supplies need to be appropriate for older people. In a recent PRA with older people in rural Mongolia, the need for appropriate food was emphasized. Foods which are "hard" - such as many of the dried milk products - are difficult for older people (who may lack teeth) to eat. In addition, older people said that food which is "heavy" is difficult for them to eat and digest. Assessments for relief efforts need to determine which food supplies would be appropriate for older people.
8. Assessments of the specific needs of older people in the context of the dzud need to be carried out, especially in the case of older people left alone or left to care for young children. This can occur alongside on-going assessments of the evolving disaster. Encouragingly, the UNDMT et. al. report Dzud 2000 - Mongolia does include some information from older people affected by the dzud. Nonetheless, older people were not specifically targeted in their rapid assessment, and there are a number of places where assumptions are made about the needs of the general population which might inadvertently leave out older people, such as in discussions on food and nutrition and "vulnerable" populations.
9. Relief efforts should be sensitive to the mobility and other physical limitations of older people, both in collecting information and in distributing supplies. This is especially the case where many older people have been left to care for children or belongings.
10. Agencies need to be aware of the potential social/family disruption in the aftermath of the dzud, and prepare for a possible rise in older people cut off from or abandoned by their families. This should be a targeted part of assessment efforts. Efforts to keep families intact should be pursued where necessary, including tracing efforts for families which have become separated.
11. Relief efforts, especially once restocking of herds commences, should be sensitive to older people and ensure that they are not ignored. Older people contribute economically to the household indirectly (e.g. childcare) as well as directly (e.g. ownership and care of animals). Relief efforts need to identify and reinforce the economically productive position of older people in herding families, and be careful to distribute animals or other supplies to both younger and older family members.
12. As migration to urban centers/towns as a result of the dzud can be expected, specific outreach efforts to locate and support older people in peri-urban communities needs to be put in place to identify and help meet the needs of older urban migrants.
13. Specific care and psychological counseling efforts need to be targeted for those older people and their families left without livestock. The particular needs of older people surviving a disaster, including their concern for the young, need to be recognized and respected.
14. Data on the impact of the dzud on people needs to include age disaggreated data (such as that collected by the MRCS) so that the impact on older people can be assessed.
Annex 1: Map of Mongolia with Aimags (Provinces)
Map of Mongolia showing provincial (aimag) boundaries.
Annex 2: Sources used in this report
Interviews/discussions (not all directly related to the dzud, but all bearing on the assessment of the situation in Mongolia):
PLEASE NOTE: The author would like to thank all the people listed here who discussed the dzud situation, some on very short notice. All errors of fact or interpretation rest with the author of this report.
Agni Baljinnyam, Project Manager, Community Care for the Elderly, MRCS
Batgerel Gombojav, Disaster Programme Manager, MRCS
Byanbaa, Governor of Taishir Soum, Gobi Altai Province
Christopher Johnstone, Honorary Consul, Canada
Chultem, Director, Gobi Altai Care Centre
Dashzeveg, Director, Gobi Altai Red Cross
Dashzeveg, Instructor, Gobi Altai Red Cross
Oyungerel Amgaa, International Relations Department, MRCS
Sabine M. Schmidt, Advisor, Protected Area Management, Nature Conservation and Bufferzone Development Project
Samdan-Dobmi Rabdangyn, Secretary General, Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS)
Syann Williams, Coordinator, UN-Disaster Management Team
Tserensodnon Dashzeveg, Health and First Aid Programme Manager, MRCS
Tseesuren, Association of Elderly Leader, Gobi Altai
Tsogtbaatar, Aimag Provincial Governor, Gobi Altai
Warren Ferdinandus, Programme Coordinator, World Vision
Additional participatory assessments and interviews with 20 older people in Gobi Altai Aimag (Province) as background into the lives of older people in Mongolia
Reports and other sources:
HelpAge International, The Ageing World and Humanitarian Crises, Conference paper, Older People - A Burden or a Resource? Helsinki, September 16, 1999.
Mongolian Red Cross Society, Draft Situation Report, April 1, 2000.
UN Disaster Management Team, United National Inter-agency Appeal for Mongolia "DZUD 2000" - An Evolving Disaster, April 3, 2000. (Referred to in the text at "UN APPEAL")
UNDMT, National Civil Defence and State Emergency Commission, Dzud 2000 - Mongolia: An Evolving Ecological, Social and economic Disaster: A Rapid Needs Assessment Report. March 9, 2000. (Referred to in the text as "DZUD 2000 REPORT")
CNN, "Widespread starvation feared in brutal Mongolian Winter," March 26, 2000. <http://www.cnn.com/2000/ASIANOW/east/03/26/nomad.crisis.ap/index.html>
The following reports are available at <http://www.reliefweb.int>:
AFP (Agence France-Presse), "Savage winter pushes Mongolia to the brink of disaster," March 15, 2000.
IFRC (International Federation of the Red Cross), "Mongolia: Snowfalls Appeal No. 5/2000 Situation Report No. 3" April 7, 2000.
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), "Food shortages threaten 25 percent of people in Mongolia," March 14, 2000.
OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), "Mongolia - Snowstorms OCHA Situation Report No. 6," Ref: OCHA/GVA - 2000/0057 OCHA Snowstorms 15 March 2000.
Save the Children Fund (UK), "Save the Children (UK) Emergency Unit Statement: Mongolia," March 23, 2000.
1 The views in this report are those of the consultant, Mark A. Ritchie, and do not necessarily represent the views of HelpAge International or its partner organizations. Dr. Ritchie can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. Feedback and comments on this report are welcomed.
2 This number is likely a low estimate, as it includes only confirmed livestock deaths. Some sources report that the actual number may be two or three times higher than this.
3 For further background and details on the dzud and its impact, please see the reports listed in Annex 2: Sources Used in this Report.
4 The following is taken from "The Ageing World and Humanitarian Crises." HelpAge International, 1999. Copies of the full document can be obtained from HelpAge International’s London Office through Lesley-Anne Knight, Emergencies Manager - HAI <LKNIGHT@helpage.org>, the HelpAge Asia & Pacific Office <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or from Agni Baljinnyam at MRCS <email@example.com>.