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 miles 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 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 queueing 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," he said.
[. . .]
[W]hen temperatures plummet into the minuses for up to eight months, poorer residents are forced to spend upwards of 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 hangs over the city. Roads are simple, unpaved mud paths and streets have no signs, streetlights or even names but are merely the gaps naturally placed between two 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.
[. . .]
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.
None of this should be a surprise. Dutch sociologist Paul Treanor's 2001 essay "Mongolia and Wyoming/Montana" predicted this very outcome. In the previous essay, Treanor compared the very poor Mongolia with the very rich American states of Wyoming and Montana. Mongolia and Wyoming/Montana, Treanor observes, are both territories which compare closely "in terms of climate, altitude, vegetation and population density". What are the differences?
Density in both areas is very low by European standards. (In the European Union 8 inhabitants/km2 is the threshold for regional assistance to low-density areas). The Gobi desert is an empty area on any map of world population density. There are some almost empty areas in central Montana, and in semi-desert south-west Wyoming. Nevertheless, the rail infrastructure in the US is better than in Mongolia, and the local road network far better. The same will apply to energy infrastructure, and above all to the 'social infrastructure' such as schools and health care.
Increasingly, however, both regions have the same economic basis: mining. No major industry ever developed in Wyoming and Montana anyway: and in Mongolia the non-extractive industrial sector has collapsed. So there has been a certain convergence of the economic base - but that base is better developed in the two US states anyway. Although reports on Mongolia refer to the 'massive' Soviet-built coal mines, Wyoming produces far more coal (over 300 million tons). In reality Mongolia's coal production (and per capita use) is tiny, in comparison with the US. Montana has a 120-year history as a copper-mining state. Both states are also well ahead of Mongolia, in the development of hydroelectric power.
In Montana, agriculture is a larger sector than mining, - but part of the state has better climate and soils than any area of Mongolia. 18 % of Montana is arable land (concentrated in the north-east corner), compared with only 1% in Mongolia. Wyoming is, like Mongolia, about 75% grazing land.
General agricultural productivity on Mongolian territory is very low. Compare Mongolia with agriculture in Poland (still considered a low-productivity agricultural sector in comparison with western Europe). In 1997, total cereal production per km2 was about 525 times higher in Poland. Meat production per km2 was 50 times higher in Poland. These figures are for total land area, and reflect primarily the difference in climate, geography, and ecology. In fact much of Mongolia is 'agricultural land', perhaps more than in Poland, but only in the sense that herds sometimes graze there. It took about 40% of the population to reach even that level of meat production. Cereal production was concentrated on the Soviet-built state farms. It has collapsed since 1989, from 416 kg/person to 81 kg/person, despite the present cereal shortage. That suggests that even these farms were only viable with subsidies, and outside technical assistance.
The low agricultural productivity reflects the harsh climate of Mongolia. In fact the combination of cold and aridity is probably harsher than in Wyoming and Montana. In relation to the ecological limitations, the inhabitants had successfully adapted to these harsh conditions. The system of pastoral nomadism in Mongolia emerged over a period of thousands of years, along with others in the Eurasian steppes and deserts. It survived almost unchanged until about 1910. There was no similar range of pastoral nomadic cultures in North America.
In other words, there was in Mongolia a unity of culture, history, economy and society based on pastoral nomadism. There was a pastoral-nomadic economy, in a pastoral-nomadic society, with a pastoral-nomadic type of culture, and a history characteristic for Eurasian steppe nomads. Mongolia is still inhabited by people who are culturally familiar with this unity: for many of them it is still daily reality. People outside Mongolia are also vaguely familiar with it: at least, they can associate Mongolia with yak herds, nomad tents, and Ghengis Khan.
In contrast, the original inhabitants of Wyoming and Montana were militarily defeated, and marginalised for generations. (The Indian Reservations are known, even outside the United States, as examples of marginalisation). An entirely new society and economy was substituted for the existing version. The new population came primarily from rural Europe: for them, food production meant primarily the family farm. During the 19th century, the immigrants developed a cultural adaptation to the steppe/prairie zone: the cattle ranch. Although the cattle (and the horses) were imports from Eurasia, the system worked. But despite all the great cowboy mythology, the settlement of the American west was not primarily based on ranching. It certainly could not be based on ranching today: the ranch population is now a fraction of the state total.
Treanor goes on to point out that Mongolia is far more removed from the major population centres of Eurasia than Wyoming and Montana are from the population centres of North America, that the relative cultural uniformity of the United States makes migration to and from Wyoming and Montana more possible than migration to and from Montana, that the tourism industry that thrives in Wyoming and Montana barely exists in Mongolia, and--crucially--that Mongolia is not part of a federal state that could subsidize its peripheral areas. At the same time, the nomadic herding lifestyle of the Mongols is becoming increasingly unsustainable, not least because of the quadrupling of the Mongolian population over the past hundred years. Arguably, most of Mongolia is too marginal to sustain local populations. The consequence of all this?
[T]he entire pattern of settlement is both artificial and dependent on a base population of herders. It there is no nomadic herding, then there is little reason for anyone to live in zones of natural pasture. It the clusters of nomadic herding population disappear, then many [small] centres then lose their reason for existence. In turn, most aimak centres exist primarily as second-tier service centres, and if the base population migrates, their local economy would also collapse.
The Gobi population is small enough, in absolute terms, to fit into a few mining and oil towns. In contrast, the forest-steppe zone will probably lose much of its population. Why this prediction? It is extremely unlikely that the nomadic pastoral lifestyle will survive for another generation: overall productivity is extremely low. If a high-productivity form of meat production replaced nomadic herding, the rural population might be partly stabilised. If not, then the rural population will have the choice of staying where they are, as the poorest people in Asia - or migrating. Given the predicted growth of the Chinese economy, and the demographic labour shortage in Russia and western Europe, emigration will probably be easier than at present. A special case is the Bayan-Ölgiy aimak: the population is mainly Kazakh. There has already been some migration to Kazakhstan: an oil boom there might attract much of the remaining Kazakh population.
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The exceptional status of Ulaan Bataar is obvious. The industrial centres Darhan, Erdenet and (on a smaller scale Choibalsan), are the result of planned concentration of investment. They were created by decisions at national level. That is also true for the aimak centres, with primarily a service function. Industrialisation of the aimak centres seems improbable. They are remote and relatively small, with no existing industry, except processing meat and hides. Their 'gross product' is comparable to agricultural villages in western Europe. They will probably be much the same size in 2025 - about 15 000 to 25 000 inhabitants.
That leaves Ulaan Bataar. The most reasonable prediction of the future population distribution is that the majority of Mongolians will live in one city. At present the best example of 'primate city' growth is Tirana in Albania. That is also a country with extreme rural poverty, and a collapsed industrial sector. Tirana has doubled (perhaps tripled) its population in a decade. However Albania also has a rich neighbour, Italy, and an extremely high rate of illegal emigration. And it has an urban tradition in the coastal regions, and an existing urban hierarchy with regional centres. Mongolia's medium-term future is extreme rural poverty, little emigration, and 100% concentration of development in Ulaan Bataar. That suggests massive movement to the capital.
In all honesty, I don't see anything wrong with this. Leaving aside a lack of obvious sources of subsidies to rural Mongolia--Soviet subsidization of Mongolia was product of, among other things, Sino-Soviet tensions and an ideological commitment to support a long-standing Communist state and satellite--I agree with Treanor that expecting the bulk of Mongolians to remain employed in increasingly non-viable regions and lifestyles is unacceptable.
Mongolia has to change if Mongolians are to enjoy acceptable standards of living. The job of the Mongolian government and its partners is to ensure that the transition is made as efficiently and quickly as possible. If not, mass emigration is always a possibility, whether to a China that's rapidly industrializing and is home to almost twice as many ethnic Mongols as in Mongolia, to a Russia that has long-standing connections with Mongolia and its own labour shortages, or to a South Korea that has cultivated close economic and demographic ties with Mongolia.