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MONGOLIA: Saving lives through information management

29 Mar 2012


In early 2010, temperatures fell to minus-50 degrees Celsius, and snow impeded access to food, fuel, sanitation and basic medical care. Livestock, a primary source of income, died from hunger and exposure. Credit: UNICEF/ Andrew Cullen
Improved information management over the past two years is helping to prioritize humanitarian needs in Mongolia’s harsh winters.
Mongolia regularly suffers from extreme weather conditions. The crisis is known locally as a dzud—a complex, long-lasting natural disaster in which a summer drought is followed by heavy snowfall and unusually low temperatures in winter. 
But the most recent dzud, which happened between 2009 and 2010, was the catalyst for an important step in improving Mongolia’s disaster preparedness, response and coordination efforts. It is yielding results this winter. 
Even by Mongolian standards, the 2009-2010 winter was extremely harsh. It led to an increase in maternal and child mortality and an unprecedented loss of livestock. Many roads were blocked, hindering people’s access to health-care facilities and other basic services. Fifteen out of Mongolia’s 21 provinces, home to more than 760,000 people, were declared disaster zones. According to humanitarian agencies, more than 7.5 million animals—over 17 per cent of the country’s total livestock—died.
The Mongolian Government requested help from the international community, and UN agencies began working with Mongolia’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
But this proved to be challenging, largely due to a lack of timely and accurate information. It was difficult to assess the dzud’s impact on the affected communities, which in turn made it difficult to prioritize humanitarian needs. The majority of information being collected was about the numbers of dead livestock, which did not provide a clear picture of the overall situation and its effects on people. 
Reports by authorities in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, were sometimes inconsistent, with information gathered at the provincial or district level. There was no clear mechanism for collecting, compiling, verifying and analysing data needed to ensure proper humanitarian response.   
The following winter (2010-2011), OCHA introduced initiatives to help NEMA and local partners to prepare and equip themselves to collect crucial information during emergencies. With support from the OCHA Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Government and international agencies agreed on efficient ways to collect and manage data on the dzud’s impact. 
“Good information and analysis are central to an effective emergency response,” says John Marinos, Information Management with OCHA’s regional office. “To have those systems established and up and running before the next emergency strikes is the best investment in preparedness a country can make. Quite simply, information well used can save lives.”   
Building on the lessons learned, OCHA helped NEMA create a plan for collecting and consolidating key information from the field. It helped to develop a questionnaire to collect information on health, education, food and agriculture—the most badly affected sectors. OCHA also trained NEMA staff on how to analyse and report on the information gathered.   
A Dzud Response Plan was developed to identify immediate, medium and longer-term needs. It included initiatives to strengthen the capacity of affected people and the Government to prepare for and cope with the consequences of future disasters. 
These efforts paid off this winter. NEMA is now completely self-sufficient in collecting, managing and sharing information about the humanitarian impact of disasters. It continues to work with the Humanitarian Country Team, comprising UN agencies and international organizations, to improve preparedness, coordination and response to humanitarian disasters.   
This year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says livestock numbers have almost recovered from the dzud and access to basic services has been restored. Thanks to NEMA’s improved information management, Mongolians now have a clear and accurate picture of the overall situation. 
Reporting by the OCHA Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific