Mongolia Puts Ger Shantytowns on the Map

Recent Features

Features | Society | Central Asia

Mongolia Puts Ger Shantytowns on the Map

An icon of a nomadic age now serves as urban housing in Ulan Bator’s underprivileged districts.

Mongolia Puts Ger Shantytowns on the Map
Credit: Jacopo Dettoni

Daynsaikhan’s ger sits at the very edge of Ulan Bator. Completely surrounded by snow, it appears cold and isolated, just a few meters from an illegal trash site. Inside, however, it is warm and cozy. The afternoon sun sneaks in through the roof window, lighting the basic, neat furniture: a few wardrobes, a television set, some shelves, a table, family pictures. The smell of the wood burning in the central stove fills the air, sealing off Mongolia’s winter – the outside temperature is  minus 30 degrees Celsius. No outside noise seems to penetrate the wool felt that envelops it all. Three kids sit puzzled on the only family bed while their mother speaks. They don’t often receive visitors in this part of the city.

“We moved from the countryside two years ago looking for a better life in the city and we settled down on this plot,” Daynsaikhan says in a low voice while feeding her youngest daughter. None of her kids has ever been to school and she looks after them around the clock. Her eldest, a 10-year-old boy helps out with the daily errands typical of the ger lifestyle: filling a few water tanks at the kiosk down the road, fetching wood and coal for the stove, washing up the siblings in a tub inside the ger. A pit latrine serves other hygienic needs. They all live on the 500,000 tugriks (US$284) per month Daynsaikhan’s husband makes working in the construction sector seven months per year, when temperatures are mild  enough to allow construction to proceed.

Gers have been an iconic part of Mongolian nomadic culture for centuries. These white, mobile tents have been home to generations of Mongolian warriors and herders, through the ebb and flow of the nation’s fortunes since the time of Genghis Khan. Perfectly suited to a nomadic lifestyle, gers were never meant to serve as housing for urban residents. Yet today they have become the symbol of Ulan Bator’s growing slums, the ger districts.

With thousands of people moving to the city seeking better living conditions over the last 15 years, Ulan Bator’s ger districts have burgeoned. Today, around 746,766 people live in gers or other semi-permanent structures, according to figures from a community mapping project developed by the city municipality, Asia Foundation and Australian Aid. That is more than Ulan Bator’s total population in 2000 and represents more than 57 percent of today’s 1.3 million citizens. In relative terms, Ulan Bator’s ger districts are as sizeable as the infamous slums of Asian megacities such as Mumbai and Dhaka. Their dwellers all share Daynsaikhan’s problems: They have little access, if any, to basic public services such as piped water, sewage, central heating – let alone schools, hospitals and public transport – and they are forced to make a living in very harsh conditions, with temperatures falling to minus 40 degrees Celsius during winter. High unemployment and rampant alcoholism make things worse. Most of them have shared little of Mongolia’s recent economic boom. The country’s per capita income has indeed spiked, increasing five-fold to more than $3,000 over the past decade, but inequality is also on the rise, as highlighted by the latest IMF country report.

“Here we feel so far away from the city, everything is so different. The climate is windy, dusty, we even wear different clothes,” Gaanbat, the managing director of khooro (subdistrict) 13 local government says.

From Relocation to Redevelopment

Seen as a temporary by-product of the country’s economic growth, Ulan Bator’s slums struggled for years to make the local or national political agenda.

“The ger area was not officially considered to be part of UB,  authorities hadn’t  thought that it would expand that much,” Ariunaa Norovsambuu,  Asia Foundation’s project coordinator for the community mapping project, says.

When they realized the real nature of the issue, authorities could no longer bury their heads in the sand.

“Given the current size of the ger districts and the fact that we expect them to add another 400,000 people in the next ten years, we decided that their redevelopment is the best solution to improve the city living conditions,” the municipality’s head of project and cooperation department Otgonbaatar D. said.

The ger areas are being mapped and integrated in the city budgeting works for the first time. A new city masterplan approved by parliament in February 2013 sets a first ever framework for the ger districts upgrade, bundling them up in six sub-centers to be equipped with the necessary infrastructure to give residents access to basic services.

The sub-center approach represents a radical change in mindset from past programs. When the black smokes coming out of the gers’ stoves started contaminating the whole city, turning it into one of the world’s most polluted (each family burns between 30 kg to 50 kg of coal and wood daily during winter), the government scrambled to approve relocation schemes based on construction developments and cheap mortgages. Yet these programs largely fell short as most ger residents simply could not afford them. In addition, the initiatives failed to recognize the value of local social and economic networks.

“When you upgrade poor urban areas, the best approach is to redevelop on site engaging with local communities, because their network is there, as opposed to force people to move far away,” Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s urban development specialist Arnaud Heckmann observes.

Densification Key

Joining efforts with the ADB, the municipality has drafted a $320 million program that sets the agenda to bring basic infrastructure to the six sub-centers identified by the masterplan. They will have paved roads, water and sewage networks, local heating plants, as well as schools and business incubators. At the same time, the program will lay the groundwork for more efficient service providers and support capacity building processes.

The program’s success will depend on its ability to trigger densification, which will eventually make it economically feasible. As each Mongolian is legally entitled to own up to 700 square meters of land,  the ger districts are divided into dozens of formally or informally recognized land plots, known as hashaa, where families live. Private developers are already negotiating deals with residents asking them to swap their land plots for newly built apartments in the area. However, the process is likely to prove difficult. Residents have spent their entire lives in gers and hashaas, even before they moved to the city. The idea of living in walled, permanent apartments still raises eyebrows. Besides, after being ignored for years, their trust in authorities is extremely low. That’s why entire blocks belonging to the Bayankshoshuu and Selbe sub-centers, the first two to be upgraded, still appear reluctant to agree to any sort of land swap agreement, according to figures by UN-Habitat.

“There is a timing issue here. They need to have the infrastructure in place to realize that this is really coming. There is a little bit of momentum that has to be respected,” ADB’s Heckman says.

There is another hurdle to be cleared. A ceiling on public debt leaves little room for approval of the ADB financing package, which amounts to $163.7 million, with another $60.3 million coming from co-financiers and the remainder to come out of the local budget. Total public debt is already 58.6 percent of GDP. Congress is slated to discuss the issue in the approaching spring session and the outcome remains unclear.

Gers remain one of the most fundamental traditions of Mongolian unique nomadic culture, and still provide home of almost half of Mongolians nationally today.

“Mongolia has nomadic culture, thus there should be ger districts,” bluntly states a column signed by columnist Dari E, who writes for the English-language newspaper UB Post.

Now that Ulan Bator’s gers are on the map, there is a chance that they can become the link between an ancient nomadic lifestyle and modern-day living, without necessarily standing for poverty and deprivation.

Jacopo Dettoni writes on business and current affairs. Bolor Munkhbold contributed research.