Combating air pollution: Why targeting the ger districts matters for everyone

By Peter Bittner

In March of 2014, the World Health Organization announced, “air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” with an estimated seven million deaths each year attributable to exposure to airborne pollutants.
Over time, harmful gases damage airways and tiny particles of dust and soot trapped in lung tissue are unable to be expelled by the body. The long-term effects of particulate matter accumulation in the lungs are elevated risks of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, and other respiratory and cardio-vascular maladies. Recent studies have also found strong correlations between air pollution and an increased prevalence of cancer of the mouth, larynx, and lungs.
It is well known that in recent years Ulaanbaatar has ranked among the world’s most polluted cities in terms of air quality, particularly in the winter. A 2011 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Mongolia’s Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Green Development found that levels of particulate matter in UB were 35 times higher than the WHO’s recommended levels. More recent World Bank resources have indicated that, “in wintertime, daily PM10 average concentrations reach at least seven times Mongolian standards, four times the most flexible WHO targets for developing countries and 14 times higher than WHO’s global guidelines.” While air quality monitoring has improved dramatically with up-to-the-minute data available online via sites like agaar.mn and ub-air.info, there are still great strides to be made to ensure Mongolia’s capital is a winter paradise. The appalling air pollution—which I experienced first-hand last year living in the Sukhbaatar district—has serious public health consequences.
Annual health expenses for Ulaanbaatar’s residents due to pollution-related causes could be as high as 727 million USD according to a 2011 World Bank study. An estimated 1,600 deaths and an additional 8,500 hospital admissions in UB are believed to be due to pollution-related causes, according to a WHO-Ministry of Nature study. A 2011 investigation by Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University found that one in 10 citizens of UB 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—and even for those still in the womb. According to research presented this year by Dr. David Warburton of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the risk of miscarriage in UB quadruples during the winter, when increased energy needs lead to dramatically higher levels of pollution.
The brunt of the public health crisis falls on UB’s most vulnerable residents: those who live in the ger districts. With 70 percent of the city’s population inhabiting the ger districts and an estimated 15,000 new migrants arriving each year, the portion of residents susceptible to the exceptionally high concentrations of airborne pollutants is only growing. Poor living conditions, low education levels, and inadequate access to health care hinders many families’ resilience to air pollution. A 2011 World Bank study found that if air quality was improved 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 Mongolian society on the whole. World Bank resources indicate that 40 percent of UB’s annual pollution is due to ger heating. Therefore, even a 50 percent reduction in particulate matter caused by ger heating would elicit a 1/3 decrease in PM10 levels throughout the city. With each incremental improvement in air quality, hospital admissions will fall, economic productivity will increase, and the long-term quality of life will rise for all residents of UB. Everyone wins.
National and municipal policy makers should take a realistic and aggressive approach to combatting air pollution, specifically targeting these areas. There is no quick fix to reducing air pollution by the nearly 90 percent necessary to meet Mongolian air quality standards. Nevertheless, drastic changes must be taken. I agree with Dr. David Warburton (who penned an excellent UB Post opinion piece on October 10th, 2014) that a transition must be made away from coal and towards natural gas, especially in the ger districts. I also concur with his recommendation that eventually, ger inhabitants should be housed in better-insulated and more efficiently-powered permanent buildings—and conversely that the grid system be extended to the ger areas. There is little doubt that UB needs a greener and more effective power system requiring significant new investment and better methods of implementation.
However, in the meantime, while the complex policy decisions are finalized and the infrastructure projects are carried out, policy-makers, NGOs, banks, and businesses should continue to work towards increasing the efficiency of the ger district’s existing energy systems: coal-fired stoves. Several organizations’ efforts in this area have shown evidence of making positive impacts on UB’s air quality, but their operations need to be expanded upon and better supported by the government.
For example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) 2011-2012 clean stove subsidy program resulted in participants producing, “65 percent lower emissions of PM 2.5 and 16 percent lower carbon monoxide emissions…compared to traditional stoves,” according to its website. The MCC’s subsidy program is also estimated to have helped reduce the total PM2.5 emissions from stoves in the ger districts by 30 percent and lower the rate of pollution-related respiratory illness. However, the MCC project is long-complete and this year the Mongolian government’s subsidies for cleaner-burning stoves dropped from 93 percent to 66 percent. However, Xac Bank’s Clean Stoves Microloan Program, with subsidies provided by Ulaanbaatar’s Clean Air Fund, has stepped in to fill the void.
To date, Xac Bank’s initiative, also known as the Eco Product Program, has distributed more than 138,000 “Xac Stoves” to ger-area residents and offers year-long microloans to ensure affordability for consumers. The program has had measurable impacts. 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. In addition, approximately 970,000 tons of CO2 emissions have been reduced so far through the project. Through its partner, Microenergy Credits, Xac Bank hopes to sell its accumulated carbon credits on global markets to ensure the financially viability of the program. It has already registered with internationally-recognized institutions like Clean Development Mechanism and The Gold Standard. The bank aims to generate profit in international carbon markets in the near future by reducing a projected two million tons of CO2 by 2019.
Environmentally and financially sustainable initiatives employing innovative approaches like Xac Banks’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. Increasing transparency and accountability on the part of government offices and ministries is vital to successfully implement and adequately monitor and evaluate valuable programs. Fostering further collaborations between diverse stakeholders in a variety of sectors is crucial to building a community of allies to combat pollution. Short-term and long-term projects, small and large scale alike, are all necessary to reducing emissions. With continued concerted effort and alliance, UB’s pollution problem will be put in the past.

With contributions from Augustine Hosch, former Senior Project Development Officer in the Eco Banking Dept. of XacBank, and edited by the UB Post for clarity.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=13055

Posted by on Jan 13 2015. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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