Mongolia enters 2013 as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with forecasters predicting GDP growth of 18-20 percent. Driven by a boom in mining revenues, the impact of this growth is clearly visible in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, where expensive office high rises, modern apartment buildings, and luxury stores are now common sights. While the capital’s elite and wealthy are enjoying the benefits of this boom, more than half of the city’s 1.2 million still live without access to even basic public services in the “ger” areas that are spread around the city.
“Ger” literally means home in Mongolian and refers to the round, felt tents that have been part of the traditional Mongolian nomadic lifestyle for centuries. Over the last two decades, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the socialist regime in Mongolia, a steady stream of migrants have left harsh conditions in the countryside to seek better access to jobs, services, and education in the cities. Ulaanbaatar has, by far, absorbed the largest numbers of these migrants and with little affordable housing available, most of the newcomers ultimately settle in the ger areas.
In 1989, 26.8 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in Ulaanbaatar; by 2006 that number had risen to 38.1 percent; and by the 2010 census, 45 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in the capital. Looking forward, population growth in the capital city is expected to continue at the same pace.
While the majority of ger area residents are poor, living standards vary, with some residents earning a decent income but still unable to afford the high prices of new apartments elsewhere in the city. According to Mongolian property law, Mongolian nationals are allowed to claim unused land and obtain ownership over land they live on. In that respect, the ger areas are therefore different from illegal slum settlements in other parts of the world.
Living conditions in the ger areas are harsh, especially during winters. [Watch a field video about winter in Mongolia.] Basic infrastructure such as paved roads, water and sewage systems, electricity, and central heating are lacking. A central feature of the ger is the stove, which is used not only for cooking but also as the primary source of heating. During winter, residents use large amounts of coal as well as other materials, including trash, to fuel the stove, resulting in a black layer of pollution that covers the city. While air pollution levels in winter are the highest of any capital city in the world, coal is unlikely to be replaced as a source of heating due to its relatively low cost. According to the World Bank, unemployment among ger residents is around 62 percent compared to 21 percent in apartment areas.
Dealing with the ramifications of such large settlements in unplanned locations and effectively delivering services to all the city’s residents, particularly in Mongolia’s extreme weather conditions, has been, and will remain, a massive challenge. This is exacerbated by the low density settlement patterns in the ger districts which means any service connections need to be spread over greater distances. These factors significantly increase the cost of delivering essential urban services such as water, electricity, waste management, and transportation. Development organizations have been providing technical and financial assistance for the improvement of basic infrastructure and services in the ger areas for years, resulting in important improvements. But the vast size of the areas makes it difficult to have a decisive impact, especially without good planning and coordinated responses from different city agencies.
Under Ulaanbaatar’s new leadership, changes for the ger areas may come faster than expected. Appointed by the prime minister in August 2012, the new city mayor, Erdene Bat-Uul, has made a clear commitment to the redevelopment of the ger areas. Adjustments to Ulaanbaatar’s City Master Plan are already being made with plans extending until 2030, and the mayor has developed an action plan for the next three years as well. The plans aim to improve the distribution of services such as water, sewage, and electricity to existing ger areas, and involve the local residents themselves in the process. Mayor Bat-Uul has also introduced changes to the city’s administrative structure, most notably creating a development agency and housing unit. The mayor’s office is currently working with international development banks and other agencies on multi-million dollar urban planning and infrastructure projects for the ger areas.
In December, The Asia Foundation launched a partnership, supported by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), with the mayor’s office to establish 10 ger units called the Ger Area Units, to serve as a bridge between the mayor’s office and the ger residents. The units have been designed to be catalysts for change in the ger areas they are assigned to, working with service delivery agencies to extend basic services based on the needs and expectations of local residents, and supporting the mayor’s redevelopment plans through advocacy and engagement with local communities. They will also work closely to support ger area residents to raise their concerns and needs directly to the mayor’s office, while also assisting communities to organize themselves to plan and implement community-driven activities to improve living conditions. To start this partnership effort, the Foundation organized a series of workshops with the senior leadership of the Ulaanbaatar municipal government as well as with the heads of the ger area units to help identify the key priorities, functions, and responsibilities of the units.
With a front-line position in the city’s efforts to improve life in the ger areas, the Ger Area Units will be crucial to the mayor’s vision for the city. Essentially part of the city administration, they will need to effectively establish themselves as allies and partners to both the residents of the ger district and the mayor’s efforts. How Mongolia manages its rapid and unplanned urbanization will be vital in determining the success of Mongolia in spreading the benefits of its rapid growth to all its citizens.
Ariunaa Norovsambuu and Tirza Theunissen are program coordinator and program and operations manager, respectively, for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia, and Mark Koenig is the Foundation’s assistant director for Governance and Law. They can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.