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Driven from the land

As desertification and bitter winters increasingly destroy the livelihoods of Mongolia’s herders, hundreds of thousands are moving into Ulan Bator’s shantytowns from the dry, desolate countryside. Kit Gillet reports.

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It is a supreme irony in a country once known as the land without fences. Stretching north from the capital, Ulan Bator, an endless succession of dilapidated boundary markers criss-cross away into the distance. They demarcate a vast shantytown that sprawls for kilometres and is now estimated to be home to a quarter of the entire population of Mongolia.

More than 700,000 people have crowded into the area in the past two decades. Many are ex-herders and their families whose livelihoods have been destroyed by bitter winters that can last more than half the year; many more are victims of desertification caused by global warming and overgrazing; the United Nations Development Programme estimates that up to 90% of the country is now fragile dryland.

Yet with limited education, few transferable job skills and often no official documents, most inhabitants end up simply waiting, getting angry with the government and reminiscing about nomadic lives past. Many take to alcohol.

“More and more people arrive every year and there are so few jobs available,” said Davaasambuu after queuing for 30 minutes to collect his family’s daily drinking water from one of 500 water stations that dot the slum. “Nothing has changed in my neighbourhood since the last election [in May 2009]. There have been no new jobs or improvements. One little bridge has been added in the last four years -- that's it.”

The basic infrastructure is not in place to support such a large population, which expands by tens of thousands of people a year. Many of them still live in a gerthe traditional round, felt tent they arrived with from the countryside and which gives the districts their name and also their sense of impermanence.

Davaasambuu’s is not an easy life. The area around his home is falling into disrepair, with rubbish piling high. Nightly fights between drunks are getting worse. But at least he can take comfort in the fact that he now has a job with which to support his family, unlike many of his neighbours.

“Not everyone in the ger district is dirt poor – some are doing OK – but it is a hard life,” said Troy Tvrdik, whose educational- and vocational-training NGO, Flourishing Future, is based in the district. “Even when it is minus 40°, you still have to go out to get water.”

A World Bank report published last year highlighted the plight of ger district residents, most of whom have limited access to electricity and no running water, sewage or central heating. The report found that during the long winter, when temperatures plummet to below freezing for up to eight months, poorer residents are forced to spend up to 40% of their income on wood or coal for heating, which adds to their financial burden as well as to the heavy clouds of pollution that hang over the city.

Roads are simple, unpaved mud paths and streets have no signs, lights or even names, but are merely the gaps between rows of tents or shacks set up by newly arrived migrants, without any input from the government.

“The quality of the infrastructure is a major problem,” said Mesky Brhane, a senior urban specialist with the World Bank, who helped produce last year’s report. “[People] are clearly frustrated by the lack of infrastructural improvements by the government.”

Protesters, many from the ger districts, have repeatedly descended on the parliament over the past few years, including a large protest in April, demanding a better distribution of the country’s mining wealth. Despite the money pouring into the country from the mining of natural resources, little makes its way to the residents of the shantytown. Mongolia has a population of just 2.7 million yet has the world’s largest mining-exploration project and, in Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s second-largest coal deposit.

Even in the more central ger areas, where many residents have lived for over a decade and built more permanent wooden or brick houses, running water and central heating are unavailable and the streets remain dark, mud roads with open sewage streams and rubbish piled high.

Another big concern is the level of unemployment. While tens of thousands of rural migrants flood the city every year looking for work, setting up their tents at the point where last year’s migrants stopped, unemployment remains a critical issue, especially in the ger districts where the unemployment rate can be as high as 62%, compared with 21% in the more developed areas of the capital.

The Mongolian government has officially declared 2011 “employment support year” in an effort to create 70,000 new jobs, but so far few signs of improvement have been visible.

“One of the biggest problems is that there is very little economic activity within the ger districts due to inadequate infrastructure – everyone has to leave the area to work,” said Brhane. “One new project the World Bank is working on is looking at ways to generate local economic development so people can live and work there. It would make a tremendous difference to people’s lives.”

“We have 12 people in our family and only two have work,” said Dashkhord, aged 50. She and her family moved from the countryside five years ago after one harsh winter took away their entire herd of 100 animals. They arrived with next to nothing and simply pitched their tent on the outskirts of the sprawling shantytown.

“The first year was really difficult,” she said. “It took me over a year to find my first job – cleaning at a hotel. I spent the first few months simply collecting plastic bottles to sell.”

Today Dashkhord earns the equivalent of about US$100 a month as a cleaner at a supermarket, a far cry from her pastoral background, while her eldest daughter looks after children for a wealthier family.

“My other daughter is also looking for a job helping look after kids,” she said. “But it is hard since there are so few jobs and they are so far away. Also, all the job adverts now say you must be over 1.7 metres, beautiful and well educated.”

“For me, I wish we stayed in the village, but for my daughter and grandkids it is better here,” said Baasankhuu, aged 63, who moved to a ger district three years ago and whose roughly US$65-a-month pension is barely enough for her and her family to live on. “My grandchildren can get a better education in Ulan Bator and maybe have a chance at a real job and future.”


Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Homepage image by Andy Hares of a poor ger district of Ulan Bator.


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why driven from the land?

The article illustrates the life of mongolians who left their land but little information is given as to why they left their land and why they were poor,which i'd like to know badly.
The domestic experts on grassland typically take a positive attiude towars mongolia's pasturing areas.But then,reports about the other aspect of the problem has rarely been seen.So I hope there are more reports discussing this aspect in the future.

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How should this article be interpreted?

I should say first that I have not myself conducted research into the slums of Ulan Bator, so I don’t have any particularly strong opinions on the situation there, but I’ll say something about pastoral regions.
90% of the soil is indeed fragile dryland, in very general terms. The real situation is as follows: First, Mongolia is an ecologically sensitive region, and this is not new. Second, I recently went to Mongolia Hanggai Mountain region recently, and the ecological protection situation is much better than that in Inner Mongolia, the ecosystems are more complete and dynamic. Of course there are problems there too, such as Chinese business people buying antler-velvet, deer blood and marmot oil, which has led to falling populations of wild animals over the last ten years. Third, the rapid deterioration in recent years years, in areas such as the South Gobi, are clearly related to the drying up of the Juyuan Sea on the Chinese side. The resulting falling water table has led to changes in the local climate. In general, rural life isn’t too bad for the locals. Economic and everyday life are very free, without anyone interfering in daily affairs. If you want to get rich you can work hard, if you want to relax and enjoy life, that’s fine too. Slums are concentrated in and around the capital, the smaller cities and townships do not have those kinds of slums, and this is where I can see the following issues: First, the Mongolian government allows its people to build their own houses and establish their own homesteads. Regardless of whether it’s a yurt, or built of brick or wood, doesn’t matter, it won’t be subject to demolition. Second, the problems of poverty are concentrated around the capital, suggesting the government doesn’t try to hide or window-dress the problems of poverty. Third, shortages in basic infrastructure are a very real problem in Mongolia, in clear need of improvement, but its not easy, because fixing roads, pipelines etc all needs the country having a better industrial base. Fourth, uneven access to medical resources is a problem, many sick people have to travel to hospital in Ulan Bator, and may be unable to return to rural areas. Whether education is a major problem isn’t very clear, in smaller towns I have found excellent English teachers, and the education conditions there were quite good.

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Don´t trust this article

Since seven years I live in Mongolia. Unfortunately this article is just a rehash of clichés and half truths. Here on the most glaring ones:
1. People leaving the countryside: these mostly aren´t herders but people (like the person she cites) who lived in the old adminstrative units of the socialist economy.
2. Desertification - overgrazing: There´s a detailed investigation by Prof Jansen of Berlin with dozens of local investigators over several years: only the lands near to means of transport (10% in the middle and North) is overgrazed and at least the same amount is underutilized. Reason is the breakdown of the State meat buying system. Because of the transport cost the prize you get depends on how close you are to the markets. Overgrazing sounds somehow alarmist and interesting but it doesn´t lead to desertification in the North or the middle of the county (higher humidity) where the overgrazing takes place.
Desertification: there was a fact finding mission by the UN in 2005 to investigate Korean and Japanese complaints over dust from the Gobi. Unambiguous result: no large scale desertifiation in Mongolia. The dust must be from chinese part of the Gobi.

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More on desertification and Mongolia

After writing the comment, I looked for the result of Jayne Belnaps research in 2005/2006 on the internet, but couldn´t find any write up.
But here the link to a conclusive study from 2010 co-authored by Troy Sternber PHD of Oxford University: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/17538940903506006
I cite the abstract: "Decline in cover identified by NDVI suggests degradation; however, continued annual fluctuation indicates desertification - irreversible land cover change - has not occurred. Further, in situ data documenting greater cover near water points implies livestock overgrazing is not causing degradation at water sources."
I understand that Kit Gillet needs money and the readers of the Guardian like stories like that. There are very real problems here but unfortunately also very different.and there´s no space here to elobarote on them.