Sat, Oct 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mongolian stoves fuel deadly smog

Mongolia’s capital is the coldest in the world — and in its tented slums, pollution from traditional heating is a killer. However, change is on the way

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian

Like many of the capital’s residents, he and his wife rarely open the windows in winter.

However, when they set up an air purifier at home, to test how severe the problem had become, they were shocked to see how dirty the filter became in just two days.

“We’ve continued to use the purifiers, so my wife and I are breathing clean air — but others don’t,” he said.

Nor do others have the option to buy their children masks and decamp to a home outside the city at weekends, as the couple do, he added.

The residents of ger districts are hit twice over: Pollution levels can be double those of the city center, and they cannot afford to take evasive measures.

Joint research by the World Bank and National University of Mongolia suggests that halving ger stove emissions could cut year-round levels of the larger PM10 particles by a third.

Foreign donors and Mongolian authorities have spent millions of dollars subsidizing the distribution of 128,000 “clean” stoves in the last year and attempting to step up the production of clean fuels.

Galimbyek Khaltai, deputy head of the city’s air pollution agency, says PM2.5 levels have already fallen by about 25 percent since the program began.

Other experts believe it is too early to judge its effectiveness because the monitoring network is not rigorous enough and unusually high levels of wind and snow last year are likely to have affected data.

Jugder Batmunkh is one of the keenest advocates of the stove replacement project.

The 63-year-old is raising her grandchildren in a ger district to the north of the capital; last year she developed asthma, which her doctor blamed on pollution.

Disposing of the ashes from gers is easier and cleaner with the new model. When you take the cover off, the ger does not fill with smoke as it tended to do before.

However, the biggest advantage for her is its efficiency: It uses just half as much coal. Her family burn through just one bag a day now, saving themselves perhaps 45,000 togrog (US$26) a month — in an area where the average income is about 600,000 togrog.

Most of her neighbors in Bhayan Khoshuu have bought the appliances, but not all are so enthusiastic.

Some have heard rumors that the new stoves might explode; others are unimpressed by their performance.

Twenty-two-year-old Nadmid Rentsenosor’s recent purchase is standing idle.

“It takes too long to heat up, so it warms the place much more slowly — we are still using the old one instead,” she said.

The city is launching a two-month campaign to show people how to use the stoves and minimize emissions. However, even if officials can persuade everyone to adapt, the resulting fall in pollution will be vulnerable to fresh shifts in Ulan Bator’s development.

As its economy grows, construction projects are under way around the city, churning up dust, and more vehicles sit in traffic jams on the streets.

The city’s population continues to swell and another bitter winter could bring a fresh surge of migrants to the ger districts; many of the current residents moved to the capital from desperation when their livestock died in extreme weather conditions.

“Clean stoves reduce air pollution, but that’s a short-term project. Our long-term project has to be to build affordable apartments,” Galimbyek said.

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