Air pollution has been a hot-button issue for several years. But, with the recent move by the Mayor of UB to restrict rural to urban migration, and the President acknowledging that air pollution has reached disastrous levels, the topic of air pollution has become the center of attention. The backdrop of every debate about air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is the idea of moving the capital. The idea to relocate the capital is not only based on the hazardous air pollution levels, but on a plethora of other pressing issues, including the negative aspects of having one center of development in a country with a land mass of 1,566,000 square km, and the host of consequences of the city’s dense population. The topic has always been discussed and advocated for, but at this moment, it is more critical now than ever to seriously consider the move.

In the aftermath of the democratic revolution of 1990, the restriction on migration and movement was lifted and a massive rural to urban migration was observed. At that time, the young Mongolian government had more pressing issues to deal with, including ensuring the sovereignty and independence of the country, and creating a new constitution. As the years went on, the massive flow of rural migrants pouring into the city had reached unprecedented levels, leading up to what we see today: population data showing that half of the country resides in the capital. It is said that Ulaanbaatar was designed to only handle 500,000 residents. This outgrown capacity has led to the issues that all UB residents are all too familiar with: air pollution and traffic congestion. These are just the surface issues that are visible to everyone. Going below the surface reveals consequences for the long-term development of not only the capital but the country as a whole. In the 19th largest country in the world, half of its citizens live in an area of 4,704.4 square km (the size of UB). This has stalled rural development and has only contributed to the problems we face in the capital.

We should give the new democratic government of the 1990s the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind the more pressing issues they had at hand. However, now there is no excuse for the government to stall on the decision to move the capital. The Mongolian government has been relatively stable for almost two decades. The most obvious and immediate action that could be undertaken to alleviate the issues facing the capital is relocating it. Kazakhstan, a country similar to Mongolia in terms of its development, moved its capital from Almaty to Astana. On July 6, 1994, the Supreme Council of Kazakhstan approved a decree on the transfer of the capital. Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, and Tanzania have moved their capitals to solve issues similar to the ones that UB faces today. The recent move by Mayor S.Batbold to restrict migration into the city is a step in the right direction, but it only looks to stop the bleeding. This seems to be a case of too little too late, and has been seen by some analysts to be a move to appease angry residents who have held demonstrations against the government. The current government, headed by the Mongolian’s People’s Party (MPP), has a real opportunity to take a significant step toward not only combating air pollution but distributing economic development resources across the country. The MPP faces no real opposition, as they hold 65 of the 76 seats in Parliament. This means there would be no significant political gridlock blocking the move. Even the President has said that the capital has become dangerous to inhabit, and took the further step of saying that the capital has no future.

The ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, Kharkhorin, has been discussed as the most attractive destination for a new capital. Details on an ideal new location for the capital are up to experts, who will take into account the feasibility of a given location. Wherever they decide to move the capital, the most important move that the current government can make is to move all, if not most, of the government’s agencies and entities to the new capital. This would mean that most politicians and civil servants would move to the new capital. Going a step further, the relocation of major universities and hospitals to the new capital city would be a dramatic step in helping to mitigate the pressure being placed on UB. UB could still remain the commercial center of the country, not much different than the contrast between New York City and Washington, D.C. The government can’t be expected to do everything, but what they can do is create a foundation for prosperity and incentivize migration to a newly established capital city. A government cannot force its citizens to move, but it can create a favorable and attractive environment free of the problems that plague our current capital. This simple, yet logical, decision to relocate the capital could have massive benefits for both the long-term prospects of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia as a whole.

10 COMMENTS

  1. This article is completely idiotic and ignores completely the realities on the ground. None of the countries mentioned who have built new capitals have found them to be successful, they are today empty shells of what they should be, often having costs billions and billions of dollars with no real benefits. It ignores the fact that in such a small country such as Mongolia (with such a small educated population) with so little capacity and skill, splitting the two would be disastrous on an economic front.

    Let’s not even mention that commerce and business are strongly interlinked and need to be geographically close to each other. Every business in the country needs to have close proximity to government services and administration. Where would OT HQ be for instance? Or do you expect businesses to replicate their operations to both cities? Do you really expect that there is sufficient markets for that?

    What about families where one is a civil servent and one is a business owner? Will they be seperated? What about the impact on real estate prices and the hundred’s of thousands of people that hold mortgages. And logistics and distribution centre would be where? So goods would be shipped to UB and then some goods would be shipped to Kharakhorum? That would of course be economically efficient…. not….

    Finally, let’s tackle the question of who is going to pay for all of this… Mongolia is close to bankruptcy and has no fudns to build the infrastructure, the hospitals, the schools, the ministries, the transport and rail links between the two cities etc… We are talking of a cost that would be well over 50Billion USD as a minimum and probably much closer to 100Bn (it did cost well over a billion USD to build a small new airport…) without even considering the considerable personal and corporate costs that would be involved. Money that would be better spend on salaries and capacity building of existing companies…

    Do you really think that foreign countries will pay for new embassies in the new capital? Will they also have the finances to maintain a consular staff in UB as would be required? Or do you expect all diplomatic representations to be in the new capital so that as soon as any one needs a visa they would need to travel? As soon as a company needs to meet a diplomat they would need to travel to the new capital? That would be great to promote business in foreign countries… Seperating universities from their core market and the employment opportunties of their graduates is of course a brilliant idea!

    It is countries where you have authoritatrian countries that wish to be removed from the people who would even consider such a move. A government removed from its people, a ghost city, a bankrupt country, a dysfunctional commercial centre and a country that becomes even less efficient and functional than it currently is! Good plan!

    Maybe instead of criticising the government for not destroying its economic viability by launching a stupid pie in the sky project, this author could maybe consider how the current challenges can be solved within UB at much lower cost and greater efficiency…. Something relatively simple to do actually..

    I see that the UB post continues to employ journalists that have no idea of what they talk about nor do they understand the consequences of their proposals.

    • Just to name one example, Brazil’s capital relocated from overcrowded Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in 1961. Brasilia experienced very rapid growth. Brazil’s capital change was considered a success, and many countries have been inspired by Brazil’s capital relocation achievement.

      The arguments you have made are no doubt detrimental for the short-term. As I mentioned in the article, commerce will still be centered in UB. It is an over-exaggeration to state that all businesses need to be close to governmental agencies. Even then, in our modern society, proximity is less important, countless businesses reside in cities other than the capital city in other countries.

      Countries with less economic development manage multiple cities and it is unfair to conclude that Mongolia could not manage two cities. You mentioned families and people who hold mortgage loans, yes their lives will be affected negatively but those problems in comparison to the interests of 1.5 million people. The interests of 1.5 million people to live in a healthy safe environment.

      Yes, the cost of relocation would be massive. With anything of this scale, it is bound to cost upwards of billions of dollars. But I don’t know where you pulled 50 billion USD from. All the problems you mentioned can be sorted out given enough time. The fact of the matter is, Mongolia has only one center of development, that needs to be addressed at some point in time. The government will have to spend money building a new city in the future no matter what, so why not shoot two rabbits with one bullet? The relocation of the capital will immediately alleviate much of the problems that plague UB.

      Ulaanbaatar was designed to hold 500,000 citizens at most and as a result the city planning is a mess. Continuing with this current trajectory will only worsen the problem and make the city uninhabitable in the future. The President and countless other politicians have supported the move to relocate the capital. “Simple” low costing and efficient measures have been taken in the past with not much success.

      I understand you disagree with the points made in the article but it is unnecessary to personally attack people based on one article. The points you have made are valid and need to be taken into account. I hope to hear from you regarding the points I made.

      • I agree that smth must be done, but it is a specious and weak argument that because the city was conceived ( built, designed, planned , whatever ) for 500,000 inhabitants it can’t grow and accommodate 2 million. Cities do grow, get bigger, prosper, etc. The problem in UB is not growth but swelling. What grows here is abject poverty, yurt slums, lack of standards, and this won’t be solved by building another city where the same incompetence, wanton corruption and governmental neglect will continue. A change of hearts, a very deep one, will be necessary for this nation wants to be part of the modern, civilized world.

    • You are totally mistaken about Brasilia. It was not only a huge political success but also it is today a beautiful large world-class city! Become more informed about the world!

      As for the rest, well, unfortunately you’re right. The GoM is broke, and there’s no light in the end of the tunnel!

  2. Moving to new location is right thing to do, if not now then when, all we need is make a decision, get well prepared and organized way to do so. Otherwise giving people land ahead of it creates same problems we have now. If government moves there people slowly migrate there too, no need talk of costs, it’s only way now. It creates new opportunities, competitions, roads, developments, cities, towns, communities and businesses etc. What we have now is dead in the water, no future, if you understand what i mean.

  3. The answer for reducing Ulaanbaatar’s pollution problem is not to move the city, but to dramatically increase investment in electric and heating infrastructure to the ger districts of UB. The majority of pollution is caused by the use of coal to heat and cook in homes. Over 200,000 homes use coal in this way, and growing. Expand heating and electric infrastructure, dramatically and quickly, making it possible to heat and cook without the use of coal or wood stoves and pollution would drop dramatically. Also, scrub the exhaust of UB’s power plants.

    • WRONG! The yurt slums, euphemistically called ger districts, should not exist. The problem is not the lack of central heating but the existence of a slum belt all around UB.

  4. This sounds like an idea I once read while living in New York in the 80’s. Lamenting on the constant gridlock in Manhattan, someone suggested that we bury all the existing cars by repaving the entire streets and avenues and start afresh.

  5. How is it that nobody – NOBODY – ever mentions the reason why UB has swollen to the size it is leading to its extreme winter pollution, poverty-gripped ger districts and an overburdened social infrastructure?
    Does anyone who knows anything about the rest of Mongolia beyond UB believe that much if not most of the population exceeding the city’s original 500,000 or so capacity it was intended for, really wanted to migrate there from rural areas. It wasn’t in expectation of work on offer, since non existed, but in desperation driven by being deprived of the low paid but far more satisfying livelihoods tens of thousands of families once had as herders, until dzuds wiped out their herds – their only means of living.
    The government has never dealt with this problem, relying instead on vast amounts of international aid as a temporary fix for the many dzuds since 1999. Yes, it’s a tough and expensive problem but had it been tackled with determination UB would not be so congested, or be criticised for the many reasons it is, including increased crime, alcoholism, extreme air pollution (arguably the world’s worst) and all that brings, plus many more negative impacts.
    Ask any of UB’s ex-herders where they would rather be, living in slum and health threatening conditions – themselves and especially their children, or living where they came from, albeit in straitened circumstances for many, but unnecessarily so if government and aimag authorities had between them a half decent plan to keep what was once almost half the population (year 2000 of thereabouts) in viable employment as herders.
    Instead, once privatised after transition to democracy in 1992 they left them to their own fates, from dzuds, droughts and all else that came their way.
    All towns/cities in all countries naturally expand over time. London was the equivalent of UB around 150 years ago for its Great Stink, overcrowding, pollution and all else that these conditions bring. London wasn’t moved, it just improved, as did generally the infrastructure of road, rail, employment conditions, healthcare and much else. New Towns were also introduced post war which took much of London’s overspill away to rural areas and new lives.
    It’s not a fair or direct comparison with Mongolia but I have to come back to the root cause of UB’s problems – and the need for its still vast herder livelihoods to be better protected. And why not a few New Towns where new enterprises could be set up to tie in with animal husbandry and its by products, and factories or distribution centres where modern facilities for ger living – solar power, efficient stoves, mobile communications – to name a few, could help transform the country by redistribution of its population and non-mineral economic resources.
    I have left out land laws, overgrazing, desertification, well and watering provision facilities and a few other quite important and relative matters that have a direct bearing on my propositions, but it’s time that the real issues underlining UB’s problems are brought into the dialogue.

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