Natural Disasters and Climate Change Intensify Urban Migration in Mongolia

  • Nyamdulam (centre) and her family were forced to move from remote north-west Mongolia, to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to seek out a new livelihood when their herd of 300 livestock died in a climate-related natural disaster known locally as dzud.

Mongolia – Nyamdulam and her family had been herders in Zavkhan Province, in remote north-west Mongolia for Nyamdulam’s whole life. In Zavkhan Province, Nyamdulam’s family had over 300 head of livestock including sheep, yak, camels, cows and horses. As is the case for many Mongolians, their livestock were their whole livelihood.

Zavkhan province, where Nyamdulam’s family lived, was heavily affected by the harsh dzuds of 1999/2000 and 2000/2001. In 2007 her family was forced to move to the local township, and eventually in 2010 to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, to find alternative sources of livelihood when all their livestock died in a climate related natural disaster known locally as dzud.

A dzud is a cyclical, slow onset natural disaster that is unique to Mongolia. Dzuds are characterized by a summer drought, followed by an unusually cold, snowy or icy winter, often leading to large-scale death of animals in spring as fodder stores run low and animals become weak. In 1999-2001, summer drought was followed by winters with heavy and continuous snowfall, blizzards and temperatures below minus 40 degrees. Throughout Mongolia, over 11 million livestock are estimated to have died in these dzuds.

Like many families in the region, Nyamdulam and her family lost the bulk of their livestock during the dzuds of 1999-2001. They struggled to recover, and continued to lose livestock in each subsequent year. In 2007, the last of their livestock died.

They moved, and started trying to collect salt to make a living, but many families who lost livestock during the dzud were doing the same. “We weren’t earning enough to meet our daily needs,” Nyamdulam explained. In 2009, she made the 1000 kilometre journey to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, for the first time to see what the city was like, and in 2010, they made the decision to move. “We had no choice but to move. If we had not lost all our livestock, we would have stayed.”

Nyamdulam’s story is not unique. Over 50,000 people are estimated to have moved to Ulaanbaatar directly after the 1999-2001 dzuds, and another 70,000 people two to three years after as herder families struggled to rebuild their livelihoods. Mongolia was again impacted by harsh dzud in 2009/2010, in which more than 8 million head of livestock (or around 20 percent of the country’s total) died, and around 20,000 herdspeople were forced to migrate to towards Ulaanbaatar.

Nyamdulam’s story represents a growing trend. Mongolia’s unique geographical location, and the reliance of rural populations on animal husbandry, make it one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. It was ranked 8th among over 100 countries in the Global Climate Risk Index of 2014; over 70 percent of land area has already been affected by desertification; average temperatures have already risen by 2.14 degrees; and glaciers in the far north western provinces, which feed green valleys in an otherwise barren landscape, are fast retreating. Mongolia was again impacted by dzud last winter.

Continuing climate change is expected to lead to intensified drought and aridity, continuing glacial retreat, increased amounts of snow during winter time, and an increase in the frequency and the extent of dzud.  A Government and UN report released in 2009 states that there is a risk that the traditional, pastoral way of life may “become extinct because of changing environmental, climate and weather conditions.”

Like Nyamdulam’s family, most internal migrants in Mongolia settle in ger districts on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, so-named for the traditional, mobile felt dwellings that many people in these districts live in. About 60 percent of the city’s population lives in these areas, but despite their size, they are considered temporary slum settlements and have not been formally integrated into city development programming. The rapid population growth in these areas has already outpaced the Government’s ability to provide basic services, adding to the difficulties faced by herder families who migrate to the city.

Nyamdulam again: “Once we moved, it was difficult to settle down. We didn’t know how life in Ulaanbaatar worked, or how to find a job. We had been herders our whole lives. Everything was different.

“We came to Ulaanbaatar with 10 people, the whole family, including my sisters and two brothers. We lived in a small dormitory, with a shared living space.  I found work keeping the coal heaters in the dormitory going throughout the night, and my mother was working as an apartment guard and cleaner. Living in the public dormitory for two years, we didn’t register our new residence with the local authorities, so the children couldn’t go to kindergarten.

 “My brothers did not like living in Ulaanbaatar. They moved back to the countryside to find work herding other people’s animals for a salary. Now it’s only the women and children in Ulaanbaatar.”

For families like hers, life in the city is a far cry from the nomadic lifestyle of rural Mongolian herders. Zavkhan Province is more than 1,000 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar, along unpaved roads, surrounded by lakes and mountains.

“When we were herders, we would get up early. We milked the cows, separated the small animals and moved the flock. The small children took care of the baby sheep. We would come back from the pasture at 5pm, milk the sheep and goats and cook on the stove in our ger. My mother made dairy products during the day – tarag (yoghurt), aaruul (dried yoghurt), and Urum (cream). In Zavkhan, there are lakes and very nice mountains. We miss our winter camp and our autumn camp.”

As for Nyamdulam, her story in many respects is a positive one. After two years, the family moved to the yard of a relative and were able to register with local authorities so that her children could go to school.

“Now things are much better for us in Ulaanbaatar. We know many people, and understand how life in Ulaanbaatar works.”

Nyamdulam is now a senior officer at the local government office, and all of her three children are in school.

Her ger is lined with medals and trophies – from her own basketball and volleyball achievements, and her children’s achievements at school. Her family’s dream now is to have their own yard, and their own ger.


In 2010, IOM conducted a needs assessment of displaced herder communities, and since 2011 IOM has been working with the Mongolia National Emergency Management Agency to support contingency planning for displacement in the case of natural disasters.