Mongolia Diary - relief arrives, but clean-up deferred
On 17 July 2009, severe flooding occurred in and around Ulanbataar, Mongolia. A total of 24 people have reportedly been killed - a high number relative to the total population, and the numbers may rise as more information is received. Some 2000 households have been significantly affected by the floods, while thousands of heads of livestock have died.
240,000 Swiss francs (USD 224,073 or EUR 157,897) have been allocated from the International Federation's Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to support the Mongolian Red Cross Society in delivering immediate assistance to some 10,000 beneficiaries.
The IFRC's Francis Markus is in Mongolia and over the coming days will share what he sees and learns while working with the Mongolian Red Cross Society to meet the needs of those impacted by this emergency.
I was all geared up to write a story about the cleanup following last Friday's flash floods in which 24 people died - the worst to have hit Mongolia, local people say, since 1966. In a population of 2.7 million, that ranks as a significant disaster.
But nature wasn't in a mood to cooperate with the story I intended to tell.
Caught in the Deluge
In one of the districts hit by the flooding, an old industrial suburb to the southwest of Ulaanbaatar, an elderly man was shovelling mud into a wheelbarrow that was quite likely tainted by overflow from the family latrine -. His wife meanwhile was trying to salvage assorted objects like bedding and old boots from the house steeped in mud.
However, before we'd got very far in pursuit of this cleanup story, the rumble of approaching thunder heralded a fresh onslaught of raindrops which grew steadily plumper and plumper.
The Mongolian capital was clearly in for a fresh and thorough soaking. Despite the rain, we were able to witness the distribution of relief supplies by the Mongolian Red Cross Society, including quilts, warm clothes, boots, some food packs and disinfectant. These items seemed to be much needed.
"I haven't been to my job for three or four days because of the floods and I'm afraid my boss might have sacked me," said a young mother, clutching her package of relief goods. She said her seven-year-old son had been left with nothing but the clothes he had on when the flood hit.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has now released approximately 225,000 US dollars from its emergency fund to cover the cost of further relief goods - especially more food, clothing and blankets. But, says Zambalgarav Jadamba, deputy head of the Mongolian Red Cross, "we are concerned about the next three months, because the affected people need more assistance before the harsh winter arrives."
Barely had we got back in the car when the hail stones started pummeling the roof, making a sound like a barrage of fire crackers. And the whipping rain water soon mounted up into lakes that came up to waist height around some of the low lying ger or nomadic tents, with people wading through the muddy unsanitary water.
Bad news keeps on coming
Trucks from NEMA, the National Emergency Management Agency, with inflatable boats mounted on the roof, tried to thread their way among the stalled cars. A policeman splashing through the traffic jam said there were two cars stuck ahead and the road was blocked. I have never seen so many vehicles turning round and reversing at the same time in such a small space.
A phone call by one of my Red Cross colleagues to NEMA produced the sobering news that at least one more person had died in today's flooding. As reports are received from remote areas, there may be more bad news to come.
Investment in preparedness
"This disaster shows the need for us to be in a position to support the Mongolian Red Cross in disaster risk reduction, including early warning systems," says IFRC Regional Disaster Management Coordinator for East Asia, Qinghui Gu, who is with me to assess the situation and needs.
Many of those killed in the floods were children. They and the elderly were the most vulnerable. Everybody is fervently hoping that somehow people will heed the ongoing warnings of heavy rain and find ways to keep their families safe. Mongolia shouldn't have to pay this price for its harsh climate and its way of life, which is in a state of perilous transition.