Nomads in the steppe, sedentary people in the city
The last herders survive in Mongolia, victims of globalization and climate change. Most of them have migrated to the capital, taking their yurts, tarpaulin dwellings where they live without running water, electricity or sanitation. Water Trolley, the short film by Toguldur Chuluunbaatar, finalist of the micro-documentary category at the We Art Water Film Festival 5, shows us a child’s daily fight to provide his family with water in one of Ulan Bator’s marginal neighborhoods.
Mongolia is one of the most demographically unbalanced countries in the world. Its population, which barely exceeded 3,2 million in 2018, covers an area of more than 1.5 million square kilometers (more than twice the size of France). However, 45% of Mongolians live in the capital, Ulan Bator, which has experienced a disproportionate growth in the last few decades.
From the steppe to the “ger districts”
These ger have sheltered Mongolians on the steppe for thousands of years. They are a cultural symbol of Mongolia, whose rural population retains the spirit of legendary nomadic herders. © Joel Heard-unsplash
This was not the case before 1990, when more than half the population lived on the steppes. They were nomads which travelled carrying their yurts, sturdy tents with a domed roof made of thick white tarpaulin, which are called ger in Mongolia. They are easy to transport and, above all, optimal to withstand the extreme Mongolian climate: terribly cold winters, in which temperatures can reach -30ºC, scorching summers and violent winds.
These ger have sheltered Mongolians on the steppe for thousands of years. They are a cultural symbol of Mongolia, whose rural population retains the spirit of legendary nomadic herders, even though their way of life is in decline. After migrating to the city, they have set up their tents in the open fields adjacent to the city center, creating vast settlements. In 2017, 950,000 (66%) of the 1,44 million inhabitants of Ulan Bator lived in yurts. Week by week, the settlements have been growing. In 2017, according to city government data, it was estimated that around 40,000 people arrived to the “ger districts” of the city every year.
After migrating to the city, they have set up their tents in the open fields adjacent to the city center, creating vast settlements. © jipe7
Today, the rolling hills stretching across the north and east of the capital are dotted with the white domes of the yurts. These are marginal neighborhoods, with no electricity or sewage, where water must be fetched from the few communal fountains installed by the government in the city.
Officially, around 500,000 minors live in Ulan Bator, but there is no accurate data on how many live in the ger. Munkhbat, the protagonist of the short film Water Trolley, is one of them.
Water Trolley, by Toguldur Chuluunbaatar, finalist in the micro-documentary category at the We Art Water Film Festival 5.
Most nomads who have ended up migrating to the cities are reluctant to leave their age-old way of life behind. The bond to the ger is very deep among rural migrants and one of the main reasons for the failure of different government plans to provide them with housing within the city.
Furthermore, the return to the steppe is very difficult. Nomadic shepherding has suffered the consequences of the economic globalization affecting wool, meat and dairy products from yaks, their main source of income. Wool production is very low (300 grams per animal per year) and despite the exodus of herders, the amount of livestock has tripled since the 1990s and the prices in the meat market have stagnated.
The efforts are now focused on saving the nomadic herders who still live on the steppes. Convinced that their way of life must be preserved for future generations, they have created cooperatives to sell their products focusing on sustainability and quality, especially yak wool. These cooperatives provide insurance against the dzud and work together to appeal to young people not to leave the steppes. Mongolia’s future depends on them.