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Extreme winter, extreme poverty in Kyrgyzstan

10 Nov 2009

With increased numbers of natural disasters happening, such as the current drought in East Africa and the recent succession of typhoons and earthquakes in South East Asia, it is easy to overlook the gradual but devastating effects of climate change on our planet's weather patterns.

While not classified as a conventional emergency, freezing temperatures as low as -30C and extended winters which drag on for months in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan are stretching its older people's coping strategies to breaking point.

Constant Crisis

HelpAge conducted a study "Constant Crisis" on the vulnerability of older people in Kyrgyzstan and the results were shocking. Poverty increases in extreme conditions and this situation is no exception.

Many of the country's already poor families fall into ultra-poverty during the winter months, due to restricted heating and energy sources, fluctuating fuel and food prices, as well as poor nutrition. The need for more heating due to the extreme cold, yet the decreased access to it due to cost, is just one of the many harmful and heartbreaking by-products of climate change.

Where older people are unable to heat their homes, they face a higher risk of ill health and many are forced to stay in bed, as it is the only way of keeping warm. Children are also affected, as many cannot go to school in the winter for lack of adequate shoes or clothing for the cold.

"We have to go without food"

Nurilla, 91, (right) has little access to heating or food during the harsh winters.

She said: "The problem we have in the winter is that the whole family - all four of us and soon to be five - lives off my pension. We try and eat three times a day, but sometimes this just isn't possible. When my pension gets delayed we have to go without food and when it is very cold this can be hard.

"We cook on the stove that also acts as a heater and in the winter we all live in one room for warmth. When there is no money for charcoal my son in law has to walk a long way to find wood in the forest."

A worsening situation

Climate change is only adding to the difficulties already faced by older people. Labour migration and the dependency on money sent home from migrant workers is a huge problem in Kyrgyzstan, particularly during the winter months when even less money is sent home.

Older people are left behind to look after the household and children as the young migrate to look for work. This breakdown of traditional family support has only made worse older people's ability to cope with the implications of a changing climate.

Read more about our work in Kyrgyzstan.

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Sarah Marzouk
Country: UK
Job title: Digital Communications

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.