ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Munkhtur Jalbuu lives in a ger – a traditional domed tent also known as a yurt – on the edge of a mountainside in one of Erdenet’s flood-prone communities. Her yard features a phalanx of anti-flooding measures, including a fence, a trench and a low concrete wall.
Munkhtur, 48, does not have much choice. Porous levees and other ineffective barriers bring frequent flooding to her community in the Bayan-Undur region, 378 kilometers (230 miles) northwest of Ulaanbaatar, the capital. So Munkhtur fashioned her own protection.
“Unless we ensure safety of where we live and build flood barriers, we will sink and wash away with everything we have one day,” says Munkhtur, as she uses a piece of wood to push away the garbage that has blown into her trench.
Munkhtur is angry at government officials, whom she accuses of failing to address the perennial threat of floods, a problem that has dogged Mongolia for decades.
As the country’s annual temperatures have climbed, so has the number of floods, which have caused millions of dollars in damage and forced thousands to live in precarious mountainside locales as they struggle to fend off potential disaster.
Annual average temperatures in Mongolia rose by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1940 and 2014, according to a government report. That’s twice as warm as the global average.
In the 1990s, floods were so rare in Orkhon province that officials didn’t even count them. But by the early 2000s, that had begun to change: the Orkhon Emergency Management Agency in Erdenet reports that 14 floods occurred in the Bayan-Undur region between 2005 and 2015, killing five people.
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
Between 2013 and 2018, the city saw eight floods, which killed seven and caused 55.4 billion Mongolian togrogs ($19 million) in damage.
A dramatic leap in annual rainfall has led to more floods. But other factors include an increasingly centralized population, a lack of land-use policy and leaky dams.
And the Emergency Management Agency has found that the canals and levees in Orkhon province protect only some subdistricts instead of the whole city. In fact, an agency report says, most levees are broken.
“They talk about the local budget being allocated for building flood barriers,” says Baldorj Delgerbayar, another Erdenet resident. “But these barriers are not effective at all.”
According to the Emergency Management Agency, state and local authorities approve a budget specifically to fund flood prevention efforts each year.
Erdenebayar Begzjav, a senior inspector for disaster prevention at the Emergency Management Agency, says the budget covers cleaning and repairing levees, digging new trenches and providing citizens with flood warnings and updates.
But “since the approved budget is not enough each year,” he says, “it is impossible to renew dams regularly. However, we are doing the best we can to protect citizens from flood and water disasters.”
The city hopes to repair its dams with $14 million from the European Union and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Erdenebayar says, but has yet to receive approval.
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
Orkhon province covers only 84,400 hectares (326 square miles), but its population is 107,634 and growing. The area’s population ballooned by about 17,000 people in the past decade – 8,000 in the last five years alone.
Erdenet, the capital of Orkhon province, is a mountainous region with natural trenches, dikes and canals. As a result, it faces a frequent threat of flooding in warm seasons, when snow melts on the mountains. Rain-fed floods also occur during Mongolia’s spring and summer.
As Erdenet’s population grows, the area available for homes shrinks. At the same time, land sales have increased and prices have jumped, so many opt for low-cost property on the city’s outskirts. The cheapest sites are mountain slopes, floodplains and ravines.
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Amgalan Nergui lives in Erdenet’s ger district, home to about 61% of the city’s population. All ger district households sit in flood risk zones.
Gers can easily float away during a flood. Amgalan says he erected his on a hill he built inside his fence. For added protection, he encircled the hill with used tires.
“This is is how we live safely and without fear,” says Amgalan, who lives with his wife and three children.
A gentle, calm mother of four adult children, Munkhtur says that before she installed homemade barriers, flooding often forced her family to move all their furniture to higher ground. “Water used to rage and flow in all of a sudden,” she says.
While she anticipates the government’s response, Munkhtur keeps looking for her own ways to protect her home.
“I live in a high-risk area,” she says, “so I’m always vigilant.”