Mongolia has experienced three earthquakes with magnitude higher than 8.0 since the year 1900, putting the capital city of Ulaanbaatar at high disaster risk.  Likewise, the city has been experiencing increased earthquake activity recently, and has six known faults around the city, four of which are capable of producing large earthquakes.

Like many places around the world, the city’s 294 public schools and kindergartens are particularly vulnerable to large earthquakes because most were not built to today’s improved international seismic standards, and many have deteriorated due to age.  Thirty percent of the city’s schools are more than 40 years old and the oldest 75 percent have little or no seismic design consideration, minimizing their ability to withstand a large earthquake.

Meanwhile, Ulaanbaatar is undergoing rapid urbanization with the population nearly doubling in the past decade to 1.3 million people. Because of this rapid growth, children attend school in multiple shifts to alleviate overcrowding, putting more children in seismically dangerous schools at risk during the longer school day.

The National Emergency Management Agency, with the support of the World Bank, is performing a detailed seismic vulnerability assessment of Ulaanbaatar City’s public schools, in cooperation with the Metropolitan Education Department, Ministry of Construction and Urban Development, and other stakeholders of the Government of Mongolia. The objective of the program is to identify the schools facing the highest seismic risk, and provide options for a cost-effective risk reduction program.


The assessment has found five types of structural systems of varying vintage and construction quality in UB City. Three of the five types are considered high-risk and are prohibited in countries with high seismic activity, such as the United States and Japan. One of these types is similar to schools that collapsed en masse in recent large earthquakes, such as the 2008 Sichuan, China event that destroyed more than 7,000 classrooms, killing tens of thousands of students.

This program will support the development of options and guidelines for the seismic upgrade of identified vulnerable school buildings, including simple strengthening solutions that align with current Mongolian norms and standards. Finally, the vulnerable building stock will be prioritized for strengthening to maximize the number of lives potentially saved from the impacts of a strong earthquake.

As President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj recently emphasized in a speech to Parliament, Mongolia must move forward to prepare for its most pressing natural risk: earthquakes. Twenty to 40 percent of all residences and buildings are expected to be lost in Ulaanbaatar if an earthquake of magnitude 7[U1] .6 occurs – and the death toll could reach “tens of thousands.” A 2013 risk assessment of Ulaanbatar City by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) found that a 6.6-7.6-magnitude quake would likely result in 30,000 to 60,000 lives lost.

“Preparedness and readiness is key,” the president told Parliament.

The good news is that simple, cost-effective retrofitting and upgrading solutions for strengthening schools already exist and have been employed in other cities throughout the world. Working together, we can protect the lives of Ulaanbaatar’s schoolchildren.

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