Children bear the cost of extreme weather: New evidence from Mongolia

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Men travel on horseback in the sub-district of Bayangol, the poorest area in Bulgan District, Khovd Province, in 2010. Lack of paved roads and over a metre of snow have made this area nearly inaccessible. © UNICEF/UNI82304/Cullen

By Valeria Groppo

A result of climate change extreme weather events are becoming more intense and more frequent in many regions of the world. From increasing precipitation and cyclones in high latitudes and tropical regions, to intensifying droughts in southern Africa, this trend is likely to continue throughout the 21st century.

Weather shocks can have long-lasting effects on children’s health and education. Hence, these shocks can reduce countries’ levels of education and economic growth in the long term. Poor people in developing regions of the world often bear the highest costs of these events. This is mainly due to limited social protection and insurance against weather risks, combined with lack of economic opportunities.

Extreme winters threaten herding households

Most studies on the impact of extreme weather events focus on droughts or rainfall shocks in tropical or dry regions. However, cold shocks in the form of extremely harsh winters can also be damaging for children. While affecting all regions with continental climate and large seasonal variations in temperature, such as Russia, inland China or the Himalayas, these shocks are especially relevant in Mongolia.

Over the past two decades, Mongolia was hit by two extremely severe winters, which caused mass livestock mortality. The phenomenon of harsh winters causing mass livestock mortality is referred to as dzud in Mongolian language. Extreme winters are characterized by exceptionally cold temperature, excessive snow, lack of precipitations during the previous summer and fluctuations in temperature that cause the snow to melt and then ice over, thus hindering animal grazing. The two recent dzud events can be seen in Figure 1, which shows livestock development in Mongolia over the period 1991-2014. The first event spanned three consecutive winters during the period 1999-2002, while the second occurred in the single winter of 2009/10.

Both shocks dramatically threatened the livelihoods of the Mongolian population. Indeed, for about one third of Mongolians, animals represent the primary source of nutrition and income. Many herders lost a substantial portion of their herd during dzud disasters, thus falling into situations of food insecurity and poverty.

Children among the most affected by extreme winters

Two recent papers study the consequences of extreme winters on children’s health and education, respectively. As it is often the case when extreme weather hits, the studies find that children were severely affected by the weather shocks. This calls for special attention from UNICEF, which can play a leading role in supporting government policies and programmes to protect children before other extreme weather events occur.

The first paper specifically studies the impact of the 2009/10 dzud on the health of children younger than 7 years, as measured by the height-for-age indicator. Results show that children who were born or in utero during the 2009/10 catastrophic winter and lived in districts that were severely hit by the shock have significantly worse health, compared to same-age children living in less affected districts.

The second paper examines the impact of extreme weather events on education. The study finds that individuals who were of school age during the shock and lived in severely affected districts are significantly less likely to have completed mandatory education, compared to peers in less affected districts. The effects are verified for both the 1999/2002 and the 2009/2010 winters. They are also large in magnitude and persist in the long term, up to about ten years after the shock. This is particularly striking in a middle-income country like Mongolia, where there are no tuition fees for basic education.

In both studies, the effects only hit children from households that were engaged in herding before the shock. Moreover, the data show a negative correlation between shock intensity and post-shock household income. Taken together, the results suggest that it is not winter conditions, per se, to which all children are exposed, which drive the results. Actually, it appears that weather shocks affected children mainly through losses in household assets and income.

What can UNICEF do to protect children from extreme weather shocks?

The fact that children were not shielded from the negative consequences of the 2009/10 winter disaster shows that the country did not experience sufficient learning from previous weather shocks. Because extreme weather is likely to strike again in Mongolia and elsewhere, it is essential to apply policies which protect vulnerable children in case of future shocks.

More research is needed to better understand the long-term effects of weather events and the mechanisms behind them. However, the existing evidence already indicates a range of complementary policies that can mitigate the impact of weather shocks on children. As UNICEF previously advocated, such policies include post-disaster relief, such as the provision of nutritional supplements to infants or pregnant mothers or the delivery of fodder to protect weakened animals. The research here presented finds indeed a positive correlation between the amount of food and fodder aid distributed after the shock and children’s health outcomes in a given district.

Preventive interventions are equally if not more important than post-shock ones. In the context of health protection, these may include monitoring the health of pregnant mothers and infants – even in non-disaster years - especially in remote rural areas and in poorer households. Moreover, weather insurance can be effective in protecting household income and, in turn, children’s health and education. Increasing the diversification of households’ economic activities can also improve households’ resilience in the face of weather extremes. As a form of income support, cash transfers also have a great potential as a mitigation policy in the context of natural disasters. Finally, improving the dissemination of information on extreme weather events, for instance through early warning systems, may also prevent the negative consequences of extreme weather on children.

_Valeria Groppo is Social and Economic Policy Consultant at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. Thanks to Michelle Mills for her comments. The research presented in this blog was conducted within the project “Economics of Climate Change: Coping with Shocks in Mongolia”. The project was carried out by a team of researchers at the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW Berlin), in cooperation with the Mongolian National Statistical Office (NSO). Funding for the project was provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research._