From Nomads to Settlers: Achieving Inclusive Urban Sanitation in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Urban water inequality is a significant challenge in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a city of 1.4 million inhabitants, the majority of whom have transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle. The city’s harsh climatic conditions and uneven development exacerbate the issue, particularly in the Gers located on the outskirts, where nomads reside in temporary tent houses. 

Rapid urbanisation and commercialisation in Mongolia have not only affected the pastoral way of life, culture, and tradition but also the environment. The majority of the urban poor in Ulaanbaatar, including former nomads and pastoral communities, live in traditional Ger areas. These areas lack services such as fresh water, wastewater disposal, and central heating systems. In winter, extreme temperatures lead to the use of raw coal, rubber, and even plastic for heating. This, combined with environmental degradation, has caused water problems and social issues, particularly in rapidly growing Ger areas.


Water Inequality and Gender Disparities 

Ger areas suffer from limited access to safe water and sanitation. Most residents rely on unsealed pit latrines and unsafe water sources such as rivers, springs, and hand-dug wells. Women, who are primarily responsible for managing water, face greater risks and challenges, further exacerbated by social class differences. The labour-intensive process of fetching, storing, and managing water negatively impacts their well-being. Inadequate sanitation facilities and expensive private bathhouses pose additional hardships, particularly during menstruation. Water-related practices also increase the risk of violence against women and girls. 

To achieve inclusive urban sanitation, it is crucial to understand the diverse water practices and analyse the associated inequalities. Efforts to address urban water inequality in Ulaanbaatar must acknowledge the diverse challenges and consequences faced by different social groups. A uniform set of solutions cannot adequately address water issues, as they vary across locations. Detailed analysis should consider the embedded gender, class, and socioeconomic dynamics in daily water practices, highlighting the consequences and inequalities related to water and sanitation access. Further research and investments are necessary to promote inclusive, resilient, water-wise, and sanitation-secure cities. 

By promoting inclusive urban sanitation, we can strive towards equitable access to safe water and sanitation for all. Efforts should focus on addressing the challenges faced by the urban poor in Ger areas, particularly women and girls who bear the brunt of water-related responsibilities. Adequate sanitation facilities, improved water supply systems, and targeted interventions can contribute to the wellbeing and empowerment of marginalised communities. With a comprehensive understanding of water practices and a commitment to equality, Ulaanbaatar can build a sustainable and inclusive future.  

I look forward to continuing the discussion on water inequality, gender and sanitation at the upcoming IWA Water and Development Congress & Exhibition on 10-14 December 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda. The congress has a strong focus on improving urban sanitation, inclusiveness and equality. Discover the programme topics here and save the date!


Insights provided by Khulan Dorjsuren, Environmental Specialist from Ulaanbaatar Mongolia

Rachna Sarkari

Membership Engagement Officer (Specialist Groups) - Strategic Programmes & Engagement rachna.sarkari [a]