Sunday, October 18, 2009


South China Morning Post
OCTOBER 8, 2009

By Michael Kohn

On the gritty outskirts of Ulan Bator, where heavy trucks lumber along pot-holed roads and packs of mangy dogs patrol garbage-strewn alleys, a shiny new billboard is attracting curious onlookers.

The sign describes an ambitious plan to modernize the neighborhood, the 11th ward of Bayanhoshuu District, raising it from slum-like conditions to the first-world in a flash.

A “before” image on the sign shows the neighborhood’s current layout of uneven streets, dead-ends and labyrinth of alleyways. To the right, an “after” image promises a sort of American suburbia experience of neatly trimmed lawns, sidewalks and quaint bungalows in the shade of poplar trees.

“This is our dream,” says community organizer Lhamsuren Ragchabazar. “If we can redesign the neighborhood people will have more conveniences and a better standard of living.”

The plan may sound like fantasy for this poor country, but Ragchabazar was undeterred. A crafty land readjustment scheme, he explains, will fund the project.

Residents are being asked to give a portion of their property, fences will be moved closer together and the excess land will be sold to raise money for much-needed infrastructure like roads and plumbing.

“One needs to give up something in order to get something better in return,” says Hirano Ryuko, a project advisor for JICA, which is supporting the government initiative. “Properties will be smaller but will have more value if the neighborhood is in better shape.”

But only a handful of the families in the neighborhood have signed up for the plan.

“Land readjustment programs take 10 to 15 years,” says Tsedendash Tulga, the head of Ulan Bator’s Land Management and Planning Division. “It can take that long just to change the mind of the community.”

And so it goes for Ulan Bator’s amoeba-like outer districts, which have sprawled out of control over the past two decades. Migrants from rural Mongolia have flooded the capital in search of work; most of the new arrivals end up in peri-urban settlements like Bayanhoshuu.

They bring with them their gers, the round felt tents used by nomads. The widespread use of the ger gives the districts a sense of impermanence, as if the residents may just pack up and return to the steppes one day. The wood fences dividing the gers create a maze of walls reminiscent of frontier outposts of the American west.

The tents are not new to the city. Since its early days in the mid-1600s the residents had a habit of moving the town every few years, until it eventually came to rest at its current location in 1778. Traditionally the gers were set up like a protective ring around the main monastery, Gandantegchinlin. The city grew rapidly during 20th century when Soviet town planners arrived with blueprints for a modern urban core. But most of the ger districts remained, expanded into valleys.

Migrants continue to arrive and occupy any possible patch of earth, often in flood prone areas. Last July eight people in Ulan Bator died in floods when their gers, placed in steep sided gullies, were washed away.

The uncontrolled growth of the ger areas means that no space has been set aside for roads, let alone basic necessities such as underground sewerage systems.

In Bayanhoshuu, residents line up outside a pump house for water, which they cart it home in plastic barrels. Hot showers can be had at a local bathhouse, though it’s too small to accommodate the needs the 10,000 district residents.

“It’s a difficult life because we have to go a long way for water,” says Puruvdulam Tsetsegee, a retired state employee who lives in the neighborhood. “And showers are very expensive. We have a family of six and each shower costs Tg1800 ($1.25). On top of this we have buy food and other necessities so it really adds up.”

Problems are exacerbated in winter when temperatures plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius. Residents keep warm by burning coal or wood in their pot-bellied stoves, although this of little use during midnight runs to the nearest outhouse.

In winter, the accumulated soot caused by tens of thousands of stoves creates an appalling black cloud that engulfs the entire city. This winter an estimated 700,000 tons of coal is needed to supply the city’s 160,000 ger district families.

The situation is not helped by Ulaanbaatar’s topography – it’s almost completely surrounded by low mountains that trap the poisonous air until a strong wind can blow it away.

The smog has had detrimental affects on the health of the population. The number respiratory diseases among children under five is three times greater in Ulaanbaatar compared to children living outside the city.

Planners say the long-term goal is to install central heating in the ger districts, thereby reducing their dependence on coal. But that could take decades.

The task of sorting out this mess has been left to Tulga, who occupies a small office in Ulan Bator’s gleaming new City Hall. He said almost three quarters of city residents live in ger districts and the challenge of moving them to apartments is hampered by the increasing numbers of new migrants.

“It is difficult to control migration. The people have a constitutional right to live where ever they want so we can’t stop them from moving to the capital,” Tulga explains.

A lack of zoning laws means that newly arrived to pitch their tents where ever they please. The city is dealing with that problem by dividing the ger districts into three categories.

Zone One, closest to the urban core, will be transformed into mixed-use housing with apartments and commercial areas. Zone Two, slightly farther out, will remain ger districts, only better organized and connected to the urban infrastructure. Zone Three, mainly the new developments on the outskirts, will be torn down and returned to its natural state.

People currently living in Zone Three will be moved to other parts of the city, increasing the density of the capital but reducing the sprawl that has wrought environmental problems like pollution and land degradation.

The urban crush has had a ripple effect on Ulan Bator’s city center, where once empty boulevards now teem with Korean taxis, Humvees and Landcruisers. During the mid-day rush hour it can take 30 minutes to drive three kilometers across the city center.

“We cannot blame one person, like the mayor the prime minister. Every city worker is jointly responsible for these issues. We all have to come together to solve these problems,” said Tulga.

The city has recently given him a boost by installing streets lights around back alleys of
Bayanhoshuu. Some of the lights are solar-powered, part of a government effort to use environmentally friendly technology.

But despite the token gestures by City Hall, Tulga admits the onus is on the public to reform their own neighborhoods.

“The main purpose of the pilot project is to show the community that it can work with the city to make necessary changes for a better life,” he said.