Clearing the air: Why Mongolia's 'Ger' districts are key to solving its air pollution crisis

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Earth Journalism Network, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

It is well known that Ulaanbaatar’s winter air quality ranks among the world’s worst. Most residents in the Mongolian capital’s sprawling squatter settlements rely on coal-burning stoves to survive temperatures that fall below minus 35 degrees Celsius. With 1.4 million inhabitants, nearly half of Mongolia’s population now lives in Ulaanbaatar and the magnitude of the public health crisis is inordinate.

The sun rises over Ulaanbaatar in the hazy November sky. (Credit: Peter Bittner)

While most of the year Ulaanbaatar’s skies are clear, between November and March visibility beyond a few blocks is nearly impossible in parts of the city. Hulking silhouettes of newly-constructed high-rise apartments loom ominously behind curtains of smoke and dust. “UB,” as Ulaanbaatar is known among locals, is the world’s coldest capital city.

“Every year the politicians say the pollution will improve and every year it’s just as bad,” said J. Enkhnasan, a resident of Ulaanbaatar, as she looked out the window at the smoggy cityscape from the school where she works.

Mongolian Parliament Member, Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, announced that this winter was “on track to be the highest-polluted on record” at a conference on Mongolia’s environment at the University of California, Berkeley held on March 11, 2016.

The brunt of the public health calamity falls on Ulaanbaatar’s most vulnerable residents, those who live in the slums commonly known as “ger districts.” [“Ger” is the Mongolian word for yurt.] With over 60 percent of the city’s population inhabiting the squatter areas, the proportion of residents most susceptible to the high concentrations of airborne pollutants is only growing.

Commuters battle the late-afternoon smoke and haze in Sukhbaatar district. (Credit: Peter Bittner)

Tens of thousands of herders arrive in UB each year, many forced to migrate by cycles of droughts and harsh winters known as “dzuds” and the resulting livestock losses. Currently, Mongolia is in the throes of a fierce dzud that the Ministry of Agriculture fears could be worse than the winter of 2009-2010 which killed millions of livestock. Increasingly, environmental pressures such as unpredictable precipitation, rangeland degradation, and desertification are driving herders’ decisions to pursue more sedentary lifestyles. Seeking greater economic opportunities, scores of pastoralists move to the nation’s sole metropolis where most settle in the vast peri-urban areas, bringing with them Soviet-era stoves.

“We have to find non-coal solutions to provide heating to the ger districts,” said PM Tsedevdamba, an avid proponent of environmental legislation in the State Great Khural, the country’s unicameral legislative body. According to a World Bank press release, 40 percent of UB’s annual pollution is due to ger heating: the vast majority from burning cheap low-quality coal.

The Clean Air Program Manager at the World Bank Mongolia writes that Ulaanbaatar’s air particulate levels “reach at least seven times Mongolian standards, four times the most flexible [World Health Organization] targets for developing countries and 14 times higher than the WHO’s global guidelines.”

“When I breathe, I can feel the smoke. My clothes and hair smell after being outside in the winter,” said Chimgee Nergui a resident of Ulaanbaatar who migrated to the capital from a village in the eastern province of Suhbaatar. “I am really concerned about this pollution which affects our health very seriously.”

Ulaanbaatar's iconic skyline is shrouded in smoke. (Credit: Peter Bittner)

While local air quality monitoring has improved dramatically in the past decade with up-to-the-minute data available via websites likeagaar.mn and ub-air.info, the grave consequences of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution crisis continue unabated. Unlike Beijing and other Asian mega-cities, few locals wear masks; their cost is prohibitive and public awareness of the health effects is low. Sadly, each year an estimated 1,600 deaths and 8,500 hospital admissions in Ulaanbaatar are believed to be due to pollution-related causes, according to a WHO-Mongolian Ministry of Nature study.

“I don’t really have medical check-ups often,” said said Odonchimeg Idersaikhan a journalist who works for Mongolian National Broadcasting. “People around me who do always complain that their lungs have some kind of diseases,” she said.

A 2011 investigation by Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University found that one in 10 residents of Ulaanbaatar die at least in part due to the effects of pollution. The hazy skies are especially harmful for children and infants, whose lungs are still developing. According to Dr. David Warburton of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, lung health in rural Mongolian children is 50 percent better than in urban children.

“Living in [Ulaanbaatar] for a long time, I don’t really notice the smell of the coal,” said Idersaikhan. “The strange thing is that when I visit other areas and come back [to UB], I become sick, mostly with cold and flu,” she said.

Poor living conditions, low education levels, and inadequate access to healthcare hinders many underprivileged families’ resilience to air pollution. A World Bank study found that if air quality was improved even to meet Mongolian government standards, mortality due to air pollution in these areas could be reduced by a whopping 24 to 45 percent.

Improving the air quality in the ger districts will benefit not just the residents of UB’s growing peripheries but all Mongolians. Even a 50 percent reduction in particulate matter caused by ger heating would elicit a 33 percent decrease in air particulate levels throughout the city.

On a January day in Sukhbaatar district, visibility is poor due to coal dust and ash. (Credit: Peter Bittner)

While there is no quick fix to reducing air pollution by the roughly 90 percent necessary to meet Mongolian air quality standards, drastic changes must be taken. With each incremental improvement in air quality, the World Bank predicts that hospital admissions will fall, economic productivity increase, and quality of life rise for residents of UB. Financially, everyone benefits as well. Annual health expenses for Ulaanbaatar’s residents due to pollution-related causes could be as high as 727 million USD.

To curtail a growing public health crisis, national and municipal policy makers must take an aggressive approach to combatting air pollution by targeting the ger districts. Instead of subsidies on higher-quality coal, a transition needs to be made towards natural gas in these areas. The power grid must be extended to all the squatter areas to eventually allow for electric heating in the gers. Ger district inhabitants should be housed in better-insulated and more efficiently-powered permanent buildings.

Fostering further collaborations between diverse stakeholders in a variety of sectors is crucial to building a community of allies to combat pollution. In order to be successful, it is vital to increase transparency and accountability on the part of government offices and ministries. The national and city governments have implemented a variety of insufficient half-measures including increasing street sweeping to combat dust and constructing hastily-erected apartments for low-income residents with poor strategies for relocation.

Beginning on July 1, 2016, NGOs in Mongolia will have the right to litigate under a new federal law. It remains to be seen whether environmental organizations will bring forward legal action against governmental entities on behalf of the citizens or the environment.

Trash collectors in Sukhbaatar district work at the Rajiv Gandhi School of Art and Production, with a Christian church and the ger districts in the northeast hills in the background. (Credit: Peter Bittner)

In the meantime, policy-makers, NGOs, banks, and businesses should continue to work towards increasing the efficiency of the ger district’s existing coal-fired stoves. Several organizations’ efforts in this area have shown evidence of making positive impacts on UB’s air quality. Xac Bank’s initiative, the Eco Product Program, has distributed more than 140,000 cleaner-burning coal-powered “Xac Stoves” to ger-area residents. Clean stove users, who in previous severe winters spent nearly half of their income on coal, have cut their heating costs by up to 50 percent through the more efficient stoves. Though comparatively small, approximately 970,000 tons of CO2 emissions have been reduced so far through the project.

Environmentally and financially sustainable initiatives employing innovative approaches like Xac’s are crucial to ensure lasting, beneficial impacts on UB’s most vulnerable communities. But their efforts are only a small part of the larger solution to tackle a problem that negatively affects all of UB’s residents. With concerted effort and alliance, Ulaanbaatar’s pollution problem can be put in the past. Until then, the smoggy winters will continue despite fiery objections from Mongolians.