For the last four years, Mongolia has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, as a mining boom saw growth hit double figures.
Rapid urbanisation has followed. In 1989, just 26.8 per cent of Mongolia’s population lived in the country’s capital Ulaanbaatar. Today more than half of the population of the entire country lives in the capital – around 1.2 million people.
‘The migrants come primarily from the countryside and originate from nomadic families. For many, it’s the first time they are living in a city. It’s a big adjustment to transition from a free and independent nomadic lifestyle to a modern urban lifestyle where there are rules and restrictions and where one has to have regard for each other,’ says Meloney Lindberg, country representative for the Asia Foundation. As a result of this rapid population growth, more than half the area of Ulaanbaatar today consists of unplanned settlements – called ger districts – which house more than half of the city’s residents. The effects of this growth are obvious, especially in the capital where cranes dominate the skyline and luxury stores compete for space to attract customers.
But the economy is set to contract, as mining projects stall and foreign investment declines. Although poverty levels have decreased, Mongolians living in the ger districts still lack basic infrastructure. ‘Poor management of solid waste in the ger areas contributes to a proliferation of illegal dumpsites in public spaces that include waste from households, as well as industrial and commercial waste,’ adds Lindberg. Meanwhile, nearly 25 per cent of Mongolia’s total population lacks access to basic services such as water, sanitation, heating, schools, and kindergartens.
Electricity supplies are also stretched. Temperatures fall to –40°C in mid-winter and blackouts are becoming more common as demand for heat and light increase. Water is also a problem. ‘The Tuul river, which feeds the aquifer that supplies most of the water for Ulaanbaatar, is shrinking,’ says Lindberg. According to an Asian Development Bank report, the city may face a water shortage this year.
With Mongolia’s debt ceiling reached, loans for infrastructure development will not be forthcoming. Settled life looks less and less appealing to the world’s most famous nomads.
This story was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine