Mongolia diary - Sanitation and learning key to flood recovery

By Francis Markus, IFRC, in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia

On 17 July 2009, severe flooding occurred in and around Ulaanbataar, 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

It's muddy, it smells horrible and - if I don't watch where I put my feet - I could easily end up falling into an uncovered latrine pit.

I think to myself: "Welcome to the aftermath of Mongolia's worst flooding in decades." Residents are still struggling to clean up, hampered by periodic fresh torrential rains, alternating with extreme high temperatures.

I've been walking around a couple of the worst-affected districts in Ulaanbaatar with medical colleagues from the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), as they carry out a health assessment.

Unclean conditions

Not surprisingly, considering the unclean conditions we've seen all around us, we've met several families who say they're suffering from diarrhoea and skin rashes. The first is a mother cradling her 15-month-old baby.

"It's impossible to stop kids from playing in this filth," says Otgontuya, while people are digging and shovelling and hammering all around her to try to restore some semblance of normalcy to their flood-impacted community.

The problem is not only the outhouses, or pit latrines, which have overflowed in the torrents of water. Residents have also had to contend with pollution from the city's rubbish dumps, which has washed down into their neighbourhoods. Despite all this, the two Red Cross doctors with whom I have been travelling find the health situation relatively stable.

Possible outbreak

"The next few weeks will still be crucial, with a high risk of a possible outbreak at any time," says Dr. Amgaa Oyungerel. She's regional health coordinator for the IFRC and a Mongolian who happened to be at home visiting family when the disaster struck. She says it's essential for MRCS and the health authorities to keep up their joint monitoring of the situation.

MRCS volunteers have been busy visiting flood-affected families with simple messages on how to keep themselves safe from disease. In one such neighbourhood, we meet a team from the UN children's agency Unicef, who are planning a behaviour change communications training, working with local Red Cross peer educators and volunteers who have a history of engaging with local populations.

The flash floods didn't just strike Ulaanbaatar, though. So I am concerned about the health situation in Gobi Altai Province in Mongolia's southwest, where 18 of the 24 fatalities occured. The deaths were all concentrated among 13 families living by the side of two rivers. Clearly it is an area that must be experiencing deep grief.

Families cared for

I haven't managed to make the journey, because it's at least two days by road from Ulaanbaatar and the flights are infrequent. But the secretary of Gobi Altai's Red Cross branch tells us by phone that the flood-affected families are being cared for by a team of doctors and nurses from the province's main town. The nomads there don't build pit latrines, so there hasn't been the same problem with overflow.

However, according to Dr. Oyungerel, even the overflow problem in the flooded districts of Ulaanbaatar "could be an opportunity for us to show people in other communities that there are ways of building better and safer latrines."

So amidst the unpleasant odour and the potential for disease, maybe some positive health lessons could yet emerge as communities take stock of their lives after this unexpected summer disaster.