Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar Grapples with Smog Problem
Mongolia calls itself the land of blue sky, but for seven long months each year, a thick cloud of smog hangs over the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Seeking to improve the quality of life for the city’s approximately 1 million inhabitants, local bankers and development organizations are striving to combat pollution at its main source - suburban family homes.
From October to April each year, 60 percent of Ulaanbaatar's air pollution is generated by residents of the city's sprawling ger districts, according to World Bank data. These residential areas on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are home to an estimated 150,000 households, with most living in traditional Mongolian gers, also known as yurts, and single-family homes that can resemble log cabins. These neighborhoods are not linked to the city's central system that heats apartments and office buildings. Thus, most families in the ger districts burn a combination of wood and coal for heating and cooking. The poorest burn tires, trash, and whatever else they can find to stay warm during Mongolia's frigid winters. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Coal-fired ger stoves release high levels of ash and other particulate matter (PM). When inhaled, these particles can settle in the lungs and respiratory tract and cause health problems. At two to 10 times above Mongolian and international air quality standards, Ulaanbaatar's PM rates are among the worst in the world, according to a December 2009 World Bank report. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that health costs related to this air pollution account for as much as 4 percent of Mongolia's GDP.
At the government's urging, several major development organizations, including the World Bank and GTZ, the development arm of the German government, joined by Mongolian institutions, including micro-finance lender Xac Bank, have launched a project to improve ger stove designs. The aim is to make new stoves widely available, thereby reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
In the past, similar programs have met with mixed success. Some fuel-efficient stoves required specific fuel types; those fuels were often expensive or subject to unreliable availability. Others simply were not an improvement. "In 2006, 2007, there were not good stoves on the market," says Ruth Erlbeck, GTZ's Integrated Urban Development Program Manager.
GTZ developed a new ger stove model, which includes insulating bricks to retain heat - and thus use less fuel - and two air intake channels to raise the combustion temperature and cut emissions. The stoves can burn all types of fuel, even high quality semi-coke coal.
Last year, Xac Bank adopted the fifth generation of GTZ's stove design for an eco-loan program. Xac Bank and GTZ claim that the stove cuts fuel use by more than 50 percent, although customer feedback indicates a less stellar performance, admits Matthew Kuzio, an American who works on the project in Xac Bank's consumer banking department. "Most [customers] are saying it's a 30 to 40 percent reduction of fuel," he told EurasiaNet.org.
A traditional stove can use up 40 percent of a family's monthly income in winter, according to Xac Bank estimates. Less fuel used means less spending. Even so, high consumer costs appear to be hindering the spread of the improved stoves, which cost 152,000 tugrik (approximately $110). GTZ's Erlbeck suggested that many Mongolians cannot afford the new stoves.
"The people who are creating the mass of the pollution are [living] in poverty," added Munkhbaatar Tsagaadai, a Xac Bank product officer.
Proponents of the fuel-efficient stoves are now searching for ways to improve distribution. Xac Bank maintains that its eco-loan borrowers who receive their loans and buy their stoves directly from bank branches save money from reduced fuel consumption, even while re-paying the loan.
The bank's sales pitch does not focus on the environmental benefits. "We don't even talk about the environment - just money and warmth," says Kuzio.
But the environmental benefits nevertheless help the bank finance the program: Xac sells carbon credits based on stove sales on the voluntary carbon offset market via an American company called MicroEnergy Credits.
Only a few hundred families have obtained loans for the stoves, along with other eco-products, from Xac Bank since the lending program began last December. The bank and GTZ officials have opposing views on how to get enough stoves into Ulaanbaatar's ger districts to make an environmental difference. GTZ's Erlbeck says a subsidy program is necessary to cut consumer costs to reasonable levels; Xac Bank's Kuzio argues that NGO programs often end before they become sustainable.
Despite the differences, both institutions are optimistic that progress can be made, in part because $30 million in Mongolia's Millennium Challenge Account is earmarked for clean energy initiatives over the next three years. "We can solve the ger problem in two years if donors work together," says Erlbeck. "The problem is manageable."
The chances of success are greater if the people creating the problem start to see themselves as a viable part of the solution as well, says Gomb, a 76-year-old retired finance administrator. After purchasing a fuel-efficient stove with a Xac Bank eco-loan, he seemed pleased that his ger, located far from the city center, was warmer and less smoky. And he welcomed the fact that he was saving money on fuel. "Individuals need to be responsible for air pollution," he said.
Andrew Cullen is a freelance journalist based in Hovd, Mongolia.
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