Ger Districts in Mongolia
Mongolia is changing rapidly. A society that had a not so distant past defined by nomadic herding on the steppes has become heavily urbanized in only a few decades. Today, around 70 percent of Mongolians live in cities. Nearly half of the population lives in the capital of Ulaanbaatar alone.

This quick change was set in motion in the early 2000’s by a booming new mining industry that promised the opportunity for those willing to move to the cities. It hasn’t come without drawbacks, though. As the economy stalled in recent years, the steady stream of jobs and money dried up. Every year, thousands of Mongolians moved to the cities, but the cities weren’t ready for them.

Finding no place for themselves in the developed parts of cities, these people set up semi-permanent camp in ger districts on the outskirts. Gers are the traditional tent dwellings of Mongolian nomads. While they are tested against the harsh conditions of the Mongolian steppes, they have not adapted well to the urban environment.

Difficulties in the Ger Districts

Ger districts are home to a significant part of the Mongolian population. Nearly 800,000 people live in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts alone. That’s more than 25 percent of all Mongolian citizens. With this in mind, the poor living conditions that these people face are especially concerning.

The districts have very limited access to utilities and infrastructure. Residents do have access to electricity, but they must purchase water from government kiosks. Waste removal is also inefficient and infrequent.

Few homes in the ger district can tap into to the city’s heating system. Around 85 percent of households rely on wood or coal-burning stoves for warmth. These stoves are inefficient and are a massive source of pollution, especially in the winter when they must be kept burning throughout the day. They are one of the primary reasons that Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted places in the world.

The hastily-constructed districts have poor transportation infrastructure as well. A lack of street lights means that crime rates rise after dark. Most roads are made of dirt and are difficult to keep passable and safe. Public transportation is rare, which leaves many people in the ger districts unable to travel to the schools and jobs that enticed them to cities in the first place.

Building the Apartments

Improving living conditions in the ger districts is a difficult task, but one that the Mongolian government is taking seriously.

One of the most straightforward ways to move forward is to develop apartment complexes for people living on the outskirts of cities. This would help address several problems at once.

Apartments are much easier to integrate into the city’s heating system. Bringing each ger into the system could cost from $2,000 to $4,000, while apartment units would only cost less than $500. Apartments are also better insulated than gers, which means heating would be cheaper and more efficient in the long run. Reducing the use of stoves necessary for so many gers could also mean a significant improvement in Ulaanbaatar’s pollution problem.

Unfortunately, the apartment-building strategy has several problems. Real estate is expensive and difficult to develop in Mongolian cities. The cost required to overcome these challenges also often prices poor ger district residents out of apartments once they are built. Financial services like mortgages are unavailable, which further compounds the problem.

However, while the long-term transition of ger residents into modern living spaces will require both time and economic reforms, many smaller programs have already been able to help people in their daily lives.

Implemented Programs

An example is the World Bank’s Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project. The project provided home insulation and almost 200,000 energy-efficient stoves to the capital’s ger districts. After the project, air pollution in the city dropped for four years in a row. Pollution is on the rise again today thanks to a steadily increasing population, but the project is proof that even more moderate interventions can make a big difference.

This year, the Asian Development Bank announced the $80 million loan to develop sustainable, eco-friendly mini-districts within the larger Ulaanbaatar ger districts. Other international groups like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have also offered aid to the Mongolian government with financing and infrastructure.

It is clear that the problems faced by ger districts are complicated and will not be solved overnight. The Mongolian government and economy are still very young and development will need to be approached carefully.

However, while the people of the ger districts are caught in transition, they have not been forgotten. Improvements are already being made and will continue to be made as long as the cooperation between Mongolia and the international community can continue.

– Joshua Henreckson
Photo: Flickr

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Mongolia
In 1990, Mongolia transitioned from a Soviet-era single-party system to a democratic system with free elections. The new government prioritized developing the nation’s fledgling economy. International investors soon turned their attention to Mongolia’s rich natural mineral deposits and helped the country take its first steps into the global market. But as the industry in Mongolia grown, harsh winters and the promise of urban jobs have created tension between Mongolia’s traditional nomadic past and its modernistic future. In the text below, the top 10 facts about living conditions in Mongolia are presented.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Mongolia

  1. Modern Mongolia has strong ties with its traditional nomadic herding culture. Much of the country’s rural population still follows this lifestyle. However, nearly 70 percent of the country’s three million people live in urban centers today with nearly half of all Mongolians in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar alone.
  2. Thanks to the newly-established mining industry, Mongolia had one of the fastest growing economies in the world in the early 2010s. This economic boom drew many rural Mongolians to major cities in search of jobs.
  3. Mongolia’s new prosperity did not come without complications. The country’s economy is reliant on international investments and fluctuations of global prices of metals like copper. When both of these factors faltered in 2014, Mongolia’s economic growth stumbled. As a result, the supply of good, high-paying jobs dried up.
  4. In 2016, nearly 30 percent of Mongolians lived in poverty. However, this news should be taken in context. Despite troubling increases in poverty that occurred in recent years, the overall poverty rate has still fallen more than 9 percent since 2010.
  5. The nomadic herders of rural Mongolia are vulnerable to harsh natural conditions on the steppes. Some years, their herds are decimated by a dzud, the Mongolian term for a severe winter that causes the death of livestock. These fierce winters can kill millions of animals and ruin herders’ livelihoods.
  6. Despite the slow economy, as many as 40,000 rural Mongolians migrate to cities each year. Many of these people are either unable or unwilling to give up their traditional dwellings– round tents called gers. These gers sprawl around major urban centers like Ulaanbaatar in what are known as ger districts. As many as 800,000 Mongolians live in these areas.
  7. The traditional dwellings mentioned above are adapted to provide shelter against Mongolia’s harsh winter, but they lack full access to water and sanitation. This helps explain why almost 40 percent of Mongolians do not have access to improved drinking water sources, while one-third of urban citizens and more than half of rural citizens do not have proper sanitation facilities.
  8. The ger districts do not have access to their cities’ heating utilities and so they must rely on stoves for warmth in the winter. These stoves are are massive collective source of pollution and have contributed to making Ulaanbaatar one of the most polluted cities in the world.
  9. Unemployment has fallen to manageable levels in the country but is incredibly high in the ger districts, perhaps as high as 60 percent.
  10. While the Mongolian government’s earliest efforts focused primarily on developing the economy, it’s now turning its attention toward infrastructure and programs to improve the lives of its poorest citizens. The Asian Development Bank has been a major partner in some of these efforts, including providing a $320 million loan for infrastructure improvements in the capital.

Moving Forward

These top 10 facts about living conditions in Mongolia show both the unique challenges the nation faces and the encouraging steps it has taken to improve the lives of the citizens of the country. While hundreds of thousands of Mongolians are currently trapped between their traditional lifestyle and a modernized one, the government is already working with partners and investors around the world to address the crisis.

– Josh Henreckson
Photo: Flickr