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At a glance: Mongolia

In Mongolia, back to school, back to better water and sanitation facilities

© UNICEF Mongolia/2013/Brown
Khaliunaa and Bulganaa, pictured here with their nomadic herder family at their summer home on the steppe, return to their Tarialam soum boarding school shortly.

By Byambaragchaa Magvandorj

World Water Week 2013 is being held 1–6 September. An estimated [PDF] 768 million people still use unsafe drinking water sources. There are major disparities in availability of water among regions, and between poor and wealthy, and rural and urban. 

Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services, coupled with poor hygiene practices, kills and sickens many children every day, and leads to impoverishment and diminished opportunities for thousands more.

It’s almost time for Khaliunaa, Bulganaa and the other children of nomadic herder families to return to their boarding school in Khuvsgul province, Mongolia. This year, back-to-school preparations have included major improvements to the school’s water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.  

KHUVSGUL PROVINCE, Mongolia, 30 August 2013 – Khaliunaa, 13, and her sister Bulganaa, 9, live in Tarialan soum, Khuvsgul province, a remote area in the north of Mongolia. Their father Buyanbadrakh and mother Narangerel are nomadic herders – the family move several times a year in search of better pasture land for the sheep, goats, horses and cows that are their livelihood. 

Right now, the family are in their summer home, a small wooden cabin on the steppe, some 12 km from the soum centre, according to Buyanbadrakh. He says that, in the winter, the family shelter some 28 km away.

Because they live so far from the centre, the girls attend boarding school, together with the other nomadic children. The school year runs from September to May. “I like learning new things at school,” Khaliunaa says. “My favourite subject is Mongolian script.”

Home away from home

At the Tarialan soum school dormitory, the staff have started preparing for the coming school year. In the kitchen, a cook stirs rhubarb jam in a large saucepan, and collects the juice and decants it into bottles for drinking.

When school is in session, the children will wake at 6 am. They’ll exercise, have breakfast and brush their teeth. This last is difficult to organize, though, according to dormitory teacher Erdene-Chimeg: “[T]here are not enough taps and water for all the children to clean their teeth at once.”

© UNICEF Mongolia/2013/Brown
Staff outside the school, including school manager Oyun-Erdene (far left). The school is having major improvements to its water and sanitation facilities. Khaliunaa and Bulganaa will no longer have to fear using the outdoor toilet at night.

The children will go to school in two shifts – the older children in the morning, and the younger ones in the afternoon. In the evening, they’ll do their homework with the dormitory teacher. During free time, they’ll use the school hall to play basketball and volleyball, and to dance.

Khaliunaa enjoys dormitory life, but she raises a few issues of her own about the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities. For example, she and her sister are afraid to use the outdoor toilet at night.

According to school manager Oyun-Erdene, “We conducted an assessment of the school with the teachers and children. We found that the main issue was the lack of clean water. It has to be fetched, which is particularly hard for the dormitory children. Also, the toilets are very far from the dormitory. It is difficult for younger children to use them in the winter.”

Upgrades for Tarialam soum school

UNICEF, in consultation with the provincial authority, has selected Tarialan soum school, including the dormitory, for upgrades to the WASH facilities. These improvements are part of UNICEF’s strategy to address inequality by focusing on the most vulnerable children and communities. Tarialan is one of the target schools under the Australian Government Overseas Aid Program (AusAID)-funded WASH in schools and kindergartens project.

The school has been open since 1939. It currently has over 1,000 students, including 153 in Khaliunaa and Bulganaa’s dormitory.

UNICEF Mongolia Water and Sanitation Officer Batnasan Nyamsuren describes the improvements: “These facilities will consist of hand-washing sinks, indoor toilets, showers for dormitory children, connection to the water supply and a septic tank.”

In addition, says Oyun-Erdene, “UNICEF has provided child-friendly school training to teachers, parents and children.”

A fresh start

Beyond the dormitory, Tarialan soum school staff are busy with preparations for the coming term, and winter. Teachers have started painting floors, walls and windows of classrooms so that they will look like new when children arrive in September. But this year, the children have more to be excited about.

Back at home, Khaliunaa and Bulganaa are pleased to hear about the plans for new WASH facilities at their dormitory, as is Narangerel. “I’m very happy that there will be an indoor toilet at the school,” she says. “They’ll be warm, comfortable and not afraid.”



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