Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

Sumiya Bilegsaikhan is a recent graduate of Seoul National University with a background in environmental planning and biological sciences. As an aspiring researcher, she is interested in understanding local experiences of global environmental changes as well as its socio-economic impacts on regional/national scales. She is particularly interested in conducting future research in arid regions of post-soviet Central and North Asian countries. She currently holds an internship with an international NGO in Mongolia. CONTACT

Dec 16th 2015 by Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

How is climate change affecting rural-urban migration in Mongolia?

Seasonal migration has always been and still is a normal part of life for nomad pastoralists in Mongolia, which constitute around 30 percent of the total population of about 3 million people. Migration is in fact an essential part of free-range traditional animal husbandry, production of which is majorly dependant on the availability of pasture and water.

At the same time, Mongolia is considered one of several countries with the highest level of exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events. High numbers of livestock are lost due to an event that is locally termed as “Dzud”, which is a very dry summer followed by a harsh winter. Dzud occurred in 1998-2000 and 2008-2010– causing the loss of 11 million and 8 million livestock, respectively, and directly affecting livelihoods of about third of the country’s population. 

On the other hand, the country has been rapidly changing and rapidly urbanizing. Modern day urbanization in Mongolia started along with socialist industrial reforms in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the country became a sattelite member of the Soviet Union. Now in the capital city of a democratic and capitalist Mongolia – Ulaanbaatar -- there resides roughly about 40 percent of the country’s population.

In context of this, I wanted to understand better internal migration movements and urbanization in Mongolia with climate change and extreme weather events in mind: how have changes in the environment affected migration decisions among such migrant families who currently reside in Ulaanbaatar and what has this migration meant for these previously nomadic, semi-nomadic families? To understand local experiences of environmental changes, migration, and life in the city, I followed the stories of 12 migrant families in Ulaanbaatar, who were nomadic and semi-nomadic herders during severe droughts that took over Western regions of the country in 1998-2000 and 2008-2010, respectively. The fieldwork took place in March 2015 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the final study report was submitted in a thesis form for my Master’s degree at Seoul National University.

So how have droughts and winter disasters affected herders’ decision to migrate to Ulaanbaatar?

For many of families I have interviewed, the decision to migrate to Ulaanbaatar was a result of many events in their lives – social, economic, political as well as environmental. Because the state of the environment – pasture land, water, forests, and weather in particular is directly connected to the families’ economic well-being, there was always some level of overlap between the “environmental” and “economic” reasons of deciding to migrate to Ulaanbaatar.

Droughts and winter disasters of 1998-2001 and 2008-2010 were not the main or only reason for why a family migrated to Ulaanbaatar. But such environmental events, local experiences, and perceived risks associated with it seemed to have amplified the already cumulating motivations of migration to Ulaanbaatar such as: better education for their children, taking care of their children in the city, search of better job opportunities for their youth, urban culture and entertainment for young families, and better hospitals, among others. In other words, environmental and weather events have played an important role in the decision to migrate to Ulaanbaatar for many herding families, but at the same time, even for families that were not directly affected by droughts and heavy winters (i.e. families that lost relatively less livestock), the family’s local experience of environmental and weather events seemed to have mattered as much as the physical impacts of those events and have pushed their already evolving decision to migrate to Ulaanbaatar over a tipping point.

What enabled migrations to Ulaanbaatar?

All of the migrant families that were interviewed either had friends or family members in Ulaanbaatar, or have been to Ulaanbaatar previously for seasonal work or to get social and medical services. For those who knew people in Ulaanbaatar, information coming from these linkages in the city seemed to play an important role in deciding where to and when to migrate to Ulaanbaatar. Information coming from their relatives in the city, who were already established migrants, was crucial in finding a place to live and work for the interviewees. Most migrants worked in informal sectors and half of migrants that I interviewed sold commodities and prepared meals in a major market in Ulaanbaatar. They kept strong contacts with their communities back in Western Mongolia also, affecting livelihoods in their home communities, as well as the decisions and the ability of other rural families to migrate to cities.

These stories of rural-urban migrants in Mongolia illustrate the complexity behind linkages between climate change, migration, and urbanization in a country with one of the highest rates of loss and damage from extreme weather events. Migrants have repeatedly mentioned how the socioeconomic well-being of rural families and rural communities have been under repeated stress since the institutional revolution in the 1990s from a socialist regime to a capitalist nation – removing previous supporting institutions in the agriculture sector and exposing many herders to market instabilities. This, in turn, made traditional herding practices and their livelihoods more vulnerable to the harsh weather patterns of Mongolia, weather patterns that were noted by quite a few migrants to be acting differently compared to when they were young. For herders in Mongolia who have lost their livelihoods to droughts and Dzud in late 1990s and yearly 2000s, migration to cities seems to have been an opportunity and a way of adapting to impacts of and risks associated with extreme weather events. But at the same time, Ulaanbaatar and other cities in Mongolia have struggled to accommodate this sudden wave of migrants in the recent decade, resulting in increased rates of urban poverty, ambient air pollution with enormous health costs as well as a lack of infrastructure and housing to support new residents of Ulaanbaatar. This is an important part of such “climate-induced migration” stories and a part that calls for more attention since environmental and social changes do not just stop when families finish migrating; migration transforms cities as well as rural lands and has a variety impacts on these receiving and sending regions. Through these migrants and the dawn of communication technology, rural-urban connections in Mongolia are stronger than ever and it would be exciting to understand what this really means for climate change and rural/urban development policies in the country. 

Image Credits: Sumiya Bilegsaikhan