Dzud emergency in Mongolia moves to risk of floods and environmental contamination

People in Mongolia continue to grapple with the effects of a severe dzud—an extreme winter event with temperatures dropping to −30°C or lower and strong winds, heavy snow and ice.

On account of this dzud (2023-2024), Mongolia saw the highest snowfall recorded in the last 49 years. At its peak, the dzud affected 90% of the territory of Mongolia, killing more than 5.9 million or over 9% of the total livestock, as of 28 March 2024.

Populations in rural areas have been most severely impacted. Blocked roads and trails make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for primary health care providers of soum health centres to reach patients.

Floods and health risks for communities in Mongolia

As spring in the northern hemisphere approaches, with rising temperatures and longer days, the thick layers of ice caused by the dzud have started to melt. The water level of rivers and lakes has increased, and the melting of heavy snow on the mountains has created a risk of floods or flash floods in Mongolia. Floods can have medium- and long-term health impacts, including an increase in the transmission of water- and food-borne diseases.

Ulaanbaatar city, located in the middle of high mountains with two large rivers that flow through the center of the city, is potentially at risk of flooding due to melting snow and ice. About 60% of Ulaanbaatar’s population live in “Ger” areas or districts that are areas with traditional tent-like dwellings and private houses without adequate sanitation infrastructure.

These areas are more susceptible to floods and related health impacts. Floods can also damage infrastructure and displace those affected, cause pit latrines to overflow, pollute the environment and soil, and increase the risk of infectious disease outbreaks.

There is also a risk of zoonotic and other infectious disease outbreaks during the handling, removal, and burial, of livestock carcasses. Dead animal carcasses, if left to decompose, can become a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

WHO support

WHO and international partners have issued funding appeals to ensure that communities living in areas most affected by the dzud can continue to receive health care during this emergency — while also accounting for the loss of income and livelihoods caused by the death of millions of livestock.

Thus far, WHO has shipped four tons of medicines and medical supplies from its global and regional stockpiles to provincial health departments for further allocation to affected soums.

In partnership with Mongolia’s Ministry of Health, WHO is enabling the delivery of essential and emergency medical services across provinces and districts. This includes training frontline health workers to deliver mental health and psychosocial support; building capacity among frontline workers to support those experiencing depression or anxiety. Health workers are thus equipped to protect the health of at-risk and vulnerable populations and ensure that these communities stay safe.

Herders and their families have received medical consultations and have been given relevant health information. To ensure that vulnerable communities have the health information they need, WHO is supporting government efforts to disseminate vital preparedness and response information to health care facilities and the public at large.

At this time, when winter is gradually transitioning to springtime, WHO recognizes the emerging risks of flooding and potential environmental contamination and is bolstering community resilience through preparedness, readiness, and response strategies derived from lessons learned from past events.

Response priorities include preventing infectious disease outbreaks through water, sanitation and hygiene measures and the provision of immediate medical care to affected communities, particularly those most vulnerable. By identifying and addressing community health risks, WHO is ensuring the continuity of essential services and preparing for increased medical demands.

Through these concerted actions, WHO aims to strengthen the resilience of Mongolia’s communities, enabling them to thrive in the face of adversity.

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