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Urbanization has come quickly to Ulaanbaatar and a handful of other cities in Mongolia. In recent years, rural Mongolians have been abandoning their long-established nomadic lifestyle for permanent and settled urban livelihoods. Population in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar has tripled since the 1980s, and the top four urban centers in the country are now home to nearly two thirds of Mongolia’s three million people.

Faced with complex formal land registration procedures, many migrants moving into cities have erectedgers,collapsible tents traditionally used by Central Asian nomads. The gers are built onhashaaplots, wooden-fenced parcels that cluster across hillsides. As rural migrants increasingly seek life in the city, these ger settlements continue to spread outward from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar’s center.

Many of these new urbanites are calling their newly adopted cities home – permanently. As Mongolians continue to move into cities, the Mongolian government faces an increasingly critical challenge of figuring out how to design and plan equitable and sustainable cities and govern the ever-changing landscape so all citizens can live more productive and healthy lives.

Formalizing Land Rights is Critical

More than a decade ago, the Mongolian government recognized that formalizing land rights in these settlements was a priority for future economic development and that an accurate and up-to-date land information base is essential for the provision of formal land titles.Formal registration of parcels in these settlements will also increase land security for lower-income Mongolians, a crucial first step out of poverty.

In 2001, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded the “Cadastral Surveying and Land Registration” project to create the institutional environment to survey and register hashaa plots around the country.

Beginning with the ADB project, this promotion by the Mongolian government to modernize functions of the land registration process is establishing and protecting land rights for its citizenry. Establishing secure land rights in turn facilitates broad economic development through the formalization of land trading practices. By increasing the security of land held by lower-income Mongolians, project activities are improving the formal system for recognizing and transferring land rights.

As part of a 2007 U.S.-Mongolia compact that created the Millennium Challenge Account for Mongolia, Thomson Reuters, was awarded a contract to provide technical assistance in land registration and mapping. Initiated in 2010, this project will result in formalization of 75,000 ger plots by 2013.

Thomson Reuters and its local partner Monmap Engineering Services Co. Ltd. are consolidating databases to merge existing cadastral maps and merging registration data for fast-growing settlements in Mongolia’s expanding peri-urban areas, mainly around Ulaanbaatar.

The creation of cadastral information – records of property showing the geographic location, extent, value, ownership and use of land typically fails to convey both the physical property description and the legal registration. Too often, maps do not contain information on responsibilities, and interests for governments to effectively manage, tax, and administer lands while meeting public and private information needs. Geographic information coupled with cadastral technologies lay the foundation for land registration by providing an access point for information that includes real property displayed as a geographically-referenced map.

Along with global technology partner Trimble Navigation, Thomson Reuters is setting up a network of Continually Operating Reference Stations (CORS), permanently installed and operating Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. Thomson Reuters is also obtaining high-resolution satellite imagery to map peri-urban neighborhoods, and training Mongolian land officials in land information technology. The CORS network provides a reference frame for accurate and efficient geolocation of parcels and features for the project. The network will also bring value beyond the initial scope of the cadastral project for other applications require accurate geolocation in the future.

By upgrading and modernizing their geodetic network and equipment, combined with digitizing from satellite imagery, the Mongolian government will more efficiently survey property boundaries for suburban gers, a critical requirement for granting land titles to Mongolian people.

“With over half of the world’s total population living in urban areas today, local governments around the world have the responsibility to account for this expansion and react accordingly,” Thomson Reuters Project Director, Noel Taylor said. “In Mongolia, innovative approaches to land management and administration are required if the people of Ulaanbaatar are to prosper and receive essential civil services.”

Planning Sustainable Cities: The Need for GIS

With data collected from the Agency of Land Affairs Construction, Geodesy and Cartography (ALACGAC) and from the General Authority for State Registration (GASR), Thomson Reuters is combining geographic data sets so that the Mongolian government has a clearer, more comprehensive view of the burgeoning urbanization affecting the country. This allows the government to expand basic services and possibly even move settlements to safer locations.

In many of the ger settlements, residents rely on pump stations to fetch household water. There are no sewer systems. Moreover, many plots are constructed in flood plains, underneath power lines, or within blast distance of nearby gas stations. Thomson Reuters GIS Mapping Specialist, B. Gantsetseg, is responsible for merging data sets to identify areas where resettlement must occur and where more infrastructure is needed.

“We carried out an extensive buffer analysis for high voltage areas, water supply lines, gas stations, flood areas, and heating lines,” Gantsetseg explained. “Zoning specifications were used to properly create buffer zones to ensure that future settlements are constructed within a safe distance for these high-risk areas. From this analysis, we can make good and realistic decisions for people who are living near these places.”

Gantsetseg said unified geographic data sets can also help solve complex challenges that local governments face.

“Better information is always welcomed. Information technology, especially GIS, has proven crucial in helping local governments cope in this rapidly-changing country. The benefits of using GIS at the government level include increased efficiency, revenue generation, better management of resources, more accurate budgets, and enhanced public participation.”

Challenges Faced & Lessons Learned

From the project’s outset, the Thomson Reuters team discovered several problems with preexisting geographic frameworks. Many boundaries overlapped, a result of too many companies mapping the same areas without the benefit of a CORS network as a common spatial reference frame. But even more importantly, cityscapes continue to change over time so map information, in constant flux, needs periodic revisions.

In a city like Ulaanbaatar, for example, where thousands of people arrive or leave over the course of several months, high-resolution satellite image technology is essential to observe and monitor the dynamic urban geography underway.

“Satellite imagery will be acquired every six months for Ulaanbaatar and Erdenet, and annually for all other eight target regions.” said Gantsetseg.

The Future of Land Information in Mongolian Cities

Behind the initial compact between the U.S. Congress and the Mongolian government is The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an innovative and independent U.S. foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty. MCC emphasizes foreign assistance that is based on good policies, country ownership, and lasting results.

Deputy Director of the Property Rights Project at MCA – Mongolia, P. Khulangua said, “It is well known that incomplete mapping translates into erroneous policy. By procuring complete mapping information for government officials, MCA believes that better decisions will be made for Mongolians living in the ger settlements. The result is a better foundation for overall governance.”

MCA officials believe that as rapid urbanization continues in Mongolia, informed policies will develop based on sound data. And that process, they say, will assist the government in providing the basic services that improve quality of life and encourage economic development.