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The Hidden Cause Behind Mongolia’s Deadly Summer Floods

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Crossroads Asia | Environment | East Asia

The Hidden Cause Behind Mongolia’s Deadly Summer Floods

Poor urban planning threatens public health in Mongolia, as demonstrated by the recent flooding.

The Hidden Cause Behind Mongolia’s Deadly Summer Floods

Construction begins to rebuild a bridge that was washed out during July 2023 flooding in Mongolia.

Credit: Facebook/ National Emergency Management Agency of Mongolia

Mongolia recently experienced torrential rain and flash flooding, which resulted in a devastating impact on its decades-old infrastructures. Thousands of homes were destroyed, tens of thousands of people were displaced and several were killed. Despite the quick response and relentless efforts of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the flooding highlighted Ulaanbaatar’s serious need to ameliorate its urban planning.

Between July 3 and August 5, Ulaanbaatar experienced intermittent heavy rain and flash floods, resulting in four deaths, including a 10-month-old baby. An estimated 31,600 families (some 128,000 people) were directly affected by the flooding. The International Federation of Red Cross based in Ulaanbaatar counted some 20,000 people displaced, and many are struggling to rebuild their lives.

According to OCHA, the U.N. arm responsible for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, “over 100 residential buildings and hundreds of traditional yurts and vehicles” flooded in Ulaanbaatar in July.

The international community is helping provide assistance. The Australian Embassy to Mongolia, the Red Cross, UNESCO, the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Center, major businesses, and others have donated to Mongolia’s relief efforts.

Australian Ambassador to Mongolia Katie Smith pledged, “As a steadfast friend and committed third neighbor, Australia will be providing AUD 250,000 in humanitarian assistance to Mongolia through the Mongolian Red Cross Society and UNFPA Mongolia to support the flood relief efforts.” The EU is to allocate 50,000 euros in assistance to the severely hit localities, which can help 11,000 people.

As residents and businesses recover from damages, Mongolian youths set up a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the individuals who passed away during the flooding. The mayor’s office donated apartments to the families of the deceased and provided 16 furnished apartments to families left homeless.

Many residents blamed the scale of the disaster on the Mongolia capital’s poor urban planning, as well as mismanagement of funds that should have been used to fix eroded roads, bridges, and flood zones. Ulaanbaatar residents, particularly in Bayanzurkh and Sukhbaatar districts, are demanding an overhaul of city’s urban planning.

As Ulaanbaatar’s population density continues to spiral – today, one-third of Mongolia’s total population lives in the capital – the old infrastructure systems simply cannot handle day-to-day use, let alone acute disasters such as floods.

A lack of effective urban planning contributes to Ulaanbaatar’s woes, whether flood management or air pollution. This is especially true in the low-income areas and communities in ger districts, which suffer from unfinished pavements, lack of street lighting, and lack of sewage systems.

Communities living in ger districts experience the worst of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution and lack access to clean water. This leaves them vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis. The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease categorizes Mongolia as a “high-burden” country for tuberculosis, estimating the disease impacts “428 per 100,000 people.” Concerningly, an unusually high percentage of new cases are found in children – 11 percent in Mongolia, versus just 3 percent in the Western Pacific region as a whole.

Sanitation is also a major issue that urban planners and policymakers need to pay attention to. Lack of access to clean water and sewage hook-ups also contribute to disease.

Grassroots efforts are underway to spark change. Oyungerel Tsedendamba, a former parliamentarian and minister of culture, is active in promoting sanitation awareness and solutions to the decades-old problem. Organizations such as Clean Sanitation and Water for All are watchdogs for Mongolia’s sanitation and hygiene. In 2020, the organization estimated that for Mongolia to ensure 100 percent safely managed sanitation by 2030 – in both urban and rural areas – efforts need to be four times faster.

Ulaanbaatar is hit by a two-fold problem. First, there is the failure to repair existing infrastructure; second, there is a failure to provide infrastructure for new residents. This is especially problematic as Ulaanbaatar is expanding into areas that are prone to flooding.

Policy failures exacerbated the recent floods, and were also clearly visible in the government response. City workers disinfected the flood-affected streets, a necessary step to stem the spread of water-borne diseases, but claimed they were not responsible for disinfecting residential buildings and homes. As the city’s policymakers, the mayor’s office should provide both opportunities and tools for residents to disinfect. This also means that government funds need to be allocated towards flood relief tools, medical equipment, and disinfectants. Foreign governments and nonprofits are not responsible, nor are they required to assist, but thankfully they do.

Eight years ago, in 2015, Artessa Saldivar-Sali, a resilience engineering specialist at the World Bank, warned to the risk of devastating flood in Ulaanbaatar. She noted that more and more families were setting up homes on “hazardous mountain slopes and flood plains,” while the city’s drainage systems were not fit for purpose. Those trends have only continued in the past eight years.

As of 2015, “[m]ore than 200,000 people, 600 residential buildings, 31,000 gers (traditional portable dwellings used by nomads) and 109 schools, kindergartens, and medical units are located in medium to high flood hazard areas,” Saldivar-Sali wrote.

She added the flooding also risked damaging “critical infrastructures such as the high-voltage power station that sits in the middle of the Selbe river channel.” Unfortunately, the recent flood did damage the Selbe Dam. The collapse of the dam increased the flooding in Ulaanbaatar, impacting five central districts and flooding residential buildings. Social media posts illustrated the major frustration of foreigners living in central Ulaanbaatar.

Just after the flooding, on August 21, Mongolia hosted the Seventh Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum on Global Health, which consisted of representatives from around the Asia-Pacific region and the World Health Organization.

During the forum, the speaker of Mongolia’s parliament, Zandanshatar Gombojav, said that Mongolia was pursuing “health sector reforms, increasing the financing of care and services, reflecting health in policies of all sectors, and strengthening inter-sectoral collaboration as its’ core goal.” The forum discussed post-COVID relief and health, but did not devote enough attention to other critical subjects such as disaster preparedness, sanitation, and urban planning.

Moving forward, Ulaanbaatar cannot neglect the seriousness of its infrastructure mismanagement and poor urban planning, and the knock-on effects on public health. Currently, the government is making piecemeal attempts to shift things around, such as moving universities to different locations. However, the main issue lies in the need to modernize Ulaanbaatar’s infrastructure and prevent settlers from moving into flood-prone or otherwise hazardous locations.