This Life film looks at how Mongolia is powering itself – is the current situation sustainable and can anything be done to introduce new, cleaner technology to improve people’s quality of life? All electricity produced in Mongolia comes from fossil fuels. What can be done to repair environmental damage and introduce sustainable alternatives to burning wood? Life visits the remote region of Urtuu Mukhar as well as the capital Ulaan Baatar, and examines the long-term environmental implications of exhausting Mongolia’s natural resources – global warming, environmental degradation, desertification. What clean technological solutions are there to Mongolia’s problems and are these feasible, financially and logistically?
Mongolia faces huge ecological and economic challenges as it makes the transition from its communist past to a free market economy. It’s in a race to protect its ecosystem and the traditional lifestyle while developing into a modern society.
Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures falling to below -30C. Winter lasts for seven months of the year. But Mongolians moving into the city are likely to live in sprawling polluted unplanned slums. The Mongolian Government is working with international development agencies in an attempt to ensure a sustainable transition into the modern world. In remote Urtuu Mukhar, seventy-year-old Dorjmaa and her family live in a traditional Mongolian Gher. Arguably the most perfectly designed tent ever made, it’s insulated with rolled wool – felt – a natural barrier against extreme cold. But Mongolians heat their Ghers by burning wood and dried animal dung, which is not very efficient and has adverse consequences for the soil and water cycles.
As if the normal cold was not bad enough, in recent years Mongolia has suffered from prolonged extreme cold which some scientists put down to global climate change. Between 1999 and 2002 Mongolia lost more than 10 million animals – almost a third of its domestic herds – and in 2002 the nation had the smallest grain harvest in its history.
This has led to increasing numbers of the traditional nomadic peoples – up to five per cent of the population each year – leaving the land and heading for the cities – particularly the capital Ulaan Baatar. Central Ulaan Baatar is beginning to look like a modern metropolis. But for the rural migrants searching for a better life, home here is most often a Gher in the growing, chaotic shanty-towns of the city, where perhaps as many as 60% of the capital’s population live.
Shatar, a rural-urban migrant, explains: ‘Living conditions in the countryside are difficult’¦ there is no infrastructure or services’¦ the main reason to move to the cities are to find jobs and educate the children.’
The people in the urban gher areas heat their homes with wood and coal. A lot of time is spent getting and using fuel. Whether in countryside or in the city, in Mongolia heat is a matter of survival, and some people go to extremes, breaking the law and even risking their lives by stealing coal.
Another risk comes from the unfiltered emissions from tens of thousands of makeshift households hovering in the winter air over Ulaan Baatar. The smoke joins the exhaust from the Soviet era power stations that generate electricity and supply heat to the city’s buildings. Together they form a noxious smog. Mongolian cities have the third worst air quality ranking in Asia: a recent Health Ministry Survey found that 70% of respondents had symptoms of respiratory disease.
Mongolian Minister of Infrastructure Byamba Jigjid says the government is trying its best to address the problems: ‘I believe that in the next few years if Mongolia develops its infrastructure it will reach the level of the developed Asian countries’¦ We need foreign and private investments to help us develop our infrastructure so we are creating an investment mechanism’¦ we are working to help investors make profits – this is a critical step for us.’
One of the most obvious problems is the air pollution from coal burning in the Gher areas. Now there’s an aid project to locally manufacture and promote low-cost efficient stoves. Another development project is promoting energy-efficient housing.
Tserendash, an architect working with the UN Development Programme’s super-insulation project, explains that they are promoting a locally made form of insulation: ‘The purpose of our project is to promote the building of super-insulated houses in Mongolia, as well as provide technical and financial support’¦ These straw bales are made in Mongolia. So far this is the most efficient material for insulation. Also it doesn’t harm nature and it’s the least expensive.’
Astra Bonini, a UN Volunteer civil engineer, is also working on the project: ‘Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are some of the highest in the world for Mongolia. Our project aims to have some impact on reducing those emissions by introducing super-insulated housing.’ The hope is that through wide acceptance super-insulation can have a considerable affect on energy loss and pollution.
Energy conservation expert Dr Dorjpurev says that climate change is creating new challenges. ‘In Mongolia over the last 60 years the air temperature has warmed by 0.4-1.5 degrees and the process is continuing. This certainly will have an impact on Mongolian ecology, economy and social life.’
But global warming won’t make Mongolia less cold in the winter. The country needs heat to survive, and new initiatives based on renewable energy have vast potential. With 300 cloudless days a year the country is well suited to develop solar energy.
Sukhbaatar, Secretary-General, Mongolian Energy Association, says: ‘To mitigate environmental impact and consider sustainable development: that is one of the key policies to promote alternative renewable energy sources… we have the potential to use solar, water and wind energy.’ Astra Bonini points out that if Mongolia reduces its CO2 emissions, the government can apply to get funding from industrialized countries under the clean development mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.
Individual Mongolians can improve efficiency and experience greater comfort by cutting waste and employing new technology: Dorjmaa has already invested in a solar panel on her gher. And Mongolia itself is well placed to act as a laboratory for sustainable development – the Seventh Millennium Development Goal. If Mongolia can achieve equitable and energy-efficient urban development, it will also show the world what is needed to lower the risk of climate change and protect this unique ecosystem and culture.
Read the latest issue of the online magazine, Mongolia Today. There’s more information – and lots of photos and Mongolian music – on Virtual Mongol. For more on the country, read Lonely Planet’s guide, or visit Mongolia Tourism.
Go to UNDP Mongolia, and read the latest Mongolian Human Development Report. For details of the UNDP Energy-Efficient Housing Project, click here, and here for details of the straw bale insulation project. For USAID’s Program Briefing on Mongolia, go here.
United Nations Volunteers in Mongolia have their own website.