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Mongolia's shantytowns set for redevelopment

Mongolia's overcrowded ger district lacks most basic amenities, but now that could change under a new government plan.

Last updated: 04 Jul 2014 14:39
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Around 60 percent of the Ulaanbaatar's population lives in the sprawling ger district [Stephanie Ott/Al Jazeera]

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia - Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, is home to around 30 percent of the country's population - and nearly 800,000 of those live in a sprawling residential area known as the ger district with no running water, no central heating, sporadic garbage collection, and no sewage system. 

Now, all that may change as the Mongolian government approved a development programme in the district. 

In May, parliament gave the green light to a $160,000 loan agreement to upgrade its infrastructure. The Ulaanbaatar Urban Services and Ger Area Development Investment programme is also designed to support socioeconomic development by creating local business hubs.

Few improvements have been delivered so far, but the government appears focused on developments in this rapidly expanding district. In February 2013, parliament approved the Urban Development Master Plan 2020 which, according to Arnaud Heckmann, urban development specialist for Mongolia at the Asian Development Bank, "marks a significant shift in policy". 

Sub-centre development has already begun - clusters of private shops and businesses, communal houses, schools and some paved roads have been built.

But providing the growing number of residents with basic services remains a challenge for the Mongolian government.

Ulaanbaatar's population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2012 to 1.3 million, growing at an annual average rate of six percent. Around 60 percent of the capital's population now lives in the ger district. "Despite the inflow of people, the city core was expanded only marginally to accommodate the new migrants," said Heckmann.

'Temporary dwelling'?

Many of the migrants come from rural areas after losing their agricultural livelihoods to harsh winters. During the winter of 2009-10, a zud, as Mongolians call the bitter cold in which temperatures can drop below minus 40 degrees Celsius, froze eight million animals - cows, goats, sheep, horses, and camels - to death. 

They falsely believe that there is a better life here.

- Shari Tvrdik, Flourishing Future

Severe winters combined with the growth of the market economy in the early 1990s led to thousands of families migrating to the capital in the hope of finding jobs.

Shari Tvrdik works for the NGO Flourishing Future, which aims to bring ger communities together by hosting dances, talks, and cooking classes, and setting up communal spaces such as libraries and internet cafes. "What used to be a wide and open field behind our home is now covered with at least 50 new properties," he said of his new neighbours who moved in from the countryside.

"They falsely believe that there is a better life here," he added. "They come to the capital thinking that the ger district will be a temporary dwelling while they find a good job. As a ger district dweller myself I have seen zero effort to change the lives of those living in the ger district." 

Tvrdik said that the NGOs in the district are the ones pushing for improvements. "If the NGOs were forced to pull out, the hole left behind would be enormous."

According to the World Bank, unemployment among ger residents hovers around 62 percent compared to 21 percent in traditionally residential areas. Gers typically have inadequate educational and medical facilities - further compounding the area's high unemployment. "Some residents earn a decent income but are still unable to afford the higher prices of new apartments elsewhere in the city," said Heckmann.

Meanwhile, Mongolia's economy grew by 11.7 percent in 2013 - becoming one of the world's most rapidly expanding economies, according to the Asian Development Bank. The main drivers for this growth have been the mining industry and a wealth in natural resources such as copper, gold, and coal.

Selenge Enkhbayar, a local resident, said: "Children inside the district have many dreams, but their life situation limits them." She said many children stay at home to help their family instead of going to school. Schools run three to four shifts a day to handle the growing number of students, which cuts down the length of school days.

Unsustainable growth

Walk through the district and you can see residents pushing carts loaded with water canisters. In contrast to apartments in the city, homes here do not have running water, forcing people to purchase water at local kiosks several times a day. According to the World Bank, there are more than 550 water kiosks. Apartment residents use roughly 270 litres of water per person per day, whereas ger area residents use around 10 litres or less a day.

Mongolia tackles pollution problem

Most residents use pit latrines that often freeze during winter. Lacking a central heating system, dwellers burn raw coal, rubber, and wood in coal stoves to heat their homes. As a result, Ulaanbaatar is one of the world's most air-polluted cities, according to the World Health Organisation. In response, initiatives by the Mongolian government and the World Bank include replacing traditional stoves with new models that emit 70-90 percent less polluted materials.

Pier Francesco Donati of the Action Contre la Faim (ACF) in Ultaanbaatar - an NGO that focuses on hygiene, water and sanitation - said: "It is undeniable that this kind of urban development is not sustainable in the long term."

But he added that some changes are slowly taking place. "It is noticeable that the municipality has made a certain effort on road construction," he said. "The ger area is now more accessible than it was two years ago."

Some residents choose to live in this district instead of city apartments for cultural reasons. Since the days of Genghis Khan, nomadic Mongolian herders have been living in gers. Even for those who now live in the capital, this remains a link to their past. "Most families tend to live together in one ger area plot and moving into an apartment would mean that there would not be sufficient space to live together," said Tirza Theunissen, Mongolia deputy country representative at the Asia Foundation.

Improvements in urban services are slow in the face of still high rates of migration from the countryside. "Every day new families settle in the fringes of the ger districts, which consequently keep expanding," said Theunissen. Given the lack of employment opportunities in other parts of the country, thousands of people continue to come to Ulaanbaatar in the hope of a better life.

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Al Jazeera
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