Sunday, March 25, 2018

Poverty Equals Pollution

"If you take coal out of the ger, people will burn anything, the tires on their cars, their neighbours' fences."
"It's hard to survive in minus 30 degrees."
Batmend Shirgal, Mongolian engineer

"[Because of the pollution] a simple flu becomes a pneumonia or bronchitis very easily."
"It requires long-term treatment."
Dr. Soyol-Erdene Jadambaa, immunologist, private clinic

"It's a fairy tale [that the government of Mongolia will be able to enforce its coal ban]."
"There are thousands of families who mine, sell and burn coal in order to live."
Khangai Unurkhaa, 25, seller of raw coal

"It’s still the warm season, so the cold and air pollution aren’t too bad at the moment. You should come back in January to see it at its worst – when people living in these poor neighbourhoods don’t have anywhere to dispose of the ash and leave it in the streets. The ash flies with the wind. That’s when Ulaanbaatar turns into a massive ashtray."
"My sister-in-law died from lung cancer a year ago. She lived only three months after the diagnosis."
"My sister’s father-in-law also recently died from lung cancer. Then, a year or two ago, her friend died from lung cancer. These were all healthy people. They didn’t drink or smoke. They didn’t have bad habits. They only lived in Ulaanbaatar."
"Small children – or anyone who is shorter than 1.5 meters, really – experience the worst form of air pollution. In deep winter, they inhale all the ashes rising from the ground."
Bayar Deegi (46), lawyer-turned-inventor
Byamba Enkhbat at home in his ger. He lost his livelihood as a nomadic farmer as his livestock ‘got skinnier by day and died one after the other’ in the harsh winter of 2007. Photograph: Didem Tali
Byamba Enkhbat at home in his ger. He lost his livelihood as a nomadic farmer as his livestock ‘got skinnier by day and died one after the other’ in the harsh winter of 2007. Photograph: Didem Tali
This is a problem that a wealthy nation like Canada has not had to face, although until a year or so ago, it was number second in the world in the distinction of its capital city, Ottawa, recognized for its snow and ice, second only to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Close to 1.4 million people live in Mongolia's capital city. And throughout the winter months smoke rises steadily from the chimneys crowding the city. Not only is Ulan Bator known for being the coldest capital city in the world, it has the highest recorded air pollution level as well.

Megalopolises like Beijing and New Delhi, with their massive populations are known for the dreadful pollution they produce, enclosing those cities, cutting them off from sunlight, challenging residents' health. But they come second to Ulan Bator for the sheer weight of pollution that menaces the lives of people living there. Local government statistics reveal that around 80 percent of the air pollution in the city is produced by over half the population who live in the "ger" districts in the city's north. 

Gers are the traditional dwellings characteristic to the nomadic Mongolian herding lifestyle. It is a yurt, a circular tent, a single living room where a family's bedding and furniture are arranged around the stove that makes life possible in such an extreme winter climate. The functionality of the yurt for a nomadic people is well known; readily disassembled and moved and set up again in a few hours' time. The life of pastoral sheep- and goat-herders. 

But the tough life of the nomadic herders was dealt a blow when unusually cold weather even for Mongolia killed off many livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people had little option but to leave their nomadic herding lives, hoping that opportunities for employment awaited them in the Ulan Bator of mineral mining. Recently, predominately lower-to-middle-income migrant workers have created their own adjunct to the city, unplanned districts where the poor burn millions of tons of raw coal yearly.

Although raw coal is relatively inexpensive, some city dwellers on these ger outskirts cannot afford even coal, and burn whatever they can; garbage waste, plastics, whatever they feel can be consumed by fire and create warmth for their circular living space. At the end of January, a pollution station in Ulan Bator recorded a reading of 3,320 micrograms per cubic meter of air, representing 133 times  what is considered safe by the World Health Organization; six times what is considered hazardous.

That same month, Mongolia's Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh decided to announce the use of raw coal in Ulan Bator would be banned. So from April 2019 forward the drive to improve the city's air quality will surge toward the future by banning the use of raw coal. Since January 2017, subsidies have been available for the use of stoves producing less pollution. Use of electricity during the night in many of the city's worst-polluting districts was made charge-free. But to adequately heat a thinly insulated home on a winter day with electricity remains out of reach; too costly for the poor.
"First the weak ones [among his herd of sheep and goats] started to die and we hoped the rest would survive, but they didn’t."
"There was too much snow, so they couldn’t eat. They got skinnier by day and died one after the other. By the time the winter was over, we had lost all our animals."
Byamba Enkhbat, 39, father of three, former nomadic herder
Byamba Enkhbat at his family’s ger on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. Photograph: Didem Tali Byamba Enkhbat at his family’s ger on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. Photograph: Didem Tali 

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