By Elise Honningdalsnes

Air pollution is a major cause of disease and death, and that is especially the case in developing countries such as Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution is putting lives at risk –especially leaving younger, older, and poorer people at higher risk of developing serious health problems.

In the last few years, smog and ash have increasingly blotted out the blue sky in Mongolia’s capital. Ulaanbaatar is among the most polluted cities in the world, and the health risks in the capital during winter are increasing rapidly.

When the quality of air declines, the risks of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases like asthma increase drastically. Every winter the living conditions in Ulaanbaatar get worse. City residents report problems with breathing during winter, and about the toxic smell outside. They also cite limited visibility in traffic, leaving more room for accidents.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world, and more than half the city’s population lives in the ger districts, in either brick housing or traditional gers. As the cold temperatures during winter are almost unbearable, residents burn cheap coal, plastic, and rubber to heat their gers and houses. This is one of the main causes for the horrendous air quality in UB.

The city’s pollution levels rose along with the mining boom in 2000 which made Mongolia one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. People moved their gers and families to the fast-growing capital, in search of better opportunities. With about 60 percent of residents living without central heating in the ger district, pollution levels escalated quickly.

While all regions of the world are affected by pollution, populations in low-income cities, such as Ulaanbaatar, are the most negatively impacted. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 98 percent of cities in low  and middle income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.

According to WHO, some three million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. However, indoor air pollution can be just as deadly as the air pollution outside. In 2012, about 6.5 million deaths (11.6 percent of all global deaths) were associated with a combination of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Nearly 90 percent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, with nearly two out of three occurring in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions, according to the World Health Organization.

Pollution affects people in several ways. In UB today, the risks of miscarriage and birth defects are ten times higher than what was reported three years ago. Mothers worry about losing their unborn children, and they fear the harm pollution can cause to their young ones.

Each winter, roughly half of the city’s population is exposed to truly terrifying levels of ambient particulate matter, which affects their health. It is believed that as many as one in every five deaths in Ulaanbaatar may be caused by air pollution, says Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Ulaanbaatar’s pollutant levels of PM 2.5 are six to seven times higher than the WHO’s most lenient air quality guidelines for developing countries. These particulates penetrate our gas exchange regions and cause a lot of harm to our bodies. These particles can also lead to eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, with symptoms of coughing and runny noses. The long-term effects of these particulates are far more serious.

There are, however, several options that can make life easier and stop the air quality from getting even worse in Mongolia. A normal ger and poorly  insulated houses use 10 times more energy than well insulated houses. Over 90 percent of all buildings in Mongolia are poorly insulated, and are therefore not well-suited for cold climates. A house built today will last about 40 years, and poor insulation will dramatically increase a household’s  energy consumption during this time, says Helge Karlsen, founder and CEO of solar energy system company Javiel AS.

Most ger district residents use coal in order to heat up their homes, which is one of the main causes for the terrible air quality in the capital. The heavy smog in the city blocks 21 percent of the sunlight during winter, making it hard to use solar energy in the city. Coal is extremely cheap, and therefore the best option for low income families, but high taxes will be imposed on coal in the near future in order to reach the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is,  therefore, important that Mongolians find new energy sources.

“It is important to develop quality products at a price that a normal family can afford, as well as technology that fits in with the Mongolian lifestyle and climate,” says Karlsen.

Karlsen’s ‘Hi-Tech Ger’

This is one reason why he believes there can be a good future for thermic solar panels in Mongolia. These panels produce heat and can reduce coal consumption by 33 percent. By using these panels, it is also possible to reduce 1.2 million tons of CO2 per year, Karlsen claims.

The Norwegian has been living in Mongolia on and off over the past five years, and he works hard to improve the quality of life in the capital through renewable energy. His thermic solar panels are currently being tested out in a “normal” Mongolian home in Erdenet. His panels have been tested and documented since 2012 with continuous data logging, and Karlsen says they have proven to be very effective.

About one billion of the world’s population live in what we refer to as “cold zones”. All these people, as well as our environment, could benefit from using thermic solar panels, argues Karlsen. These panels work best in cold climates, meaning they are perfect for Mongolia.

Thermic solar panels could be produced in Mongolia, generating more jobs and income for the country. The panels could be exported to other cold places,  such as those in Russia and China, and would contribute to the Mongolian economy.

Outside the capital and far away from the pollution, solar energy is a great option. The normal placement of gers is perfectly equipped for maximizing the production of solar energy. The doors of gers traditionally face south, and Karlsen says this is perfect for renewable energy and one of his latest inventions.

Karlsen has replaced the traditional wood door of a ger with a thermic solar panel for his new “Hi-Tech Ger”. The door will function like a normal door, but will also produce heat through solar energy. He has also installed special heat reflective material in the walls and on the floor of his ger. About 95 percent of the radiant heat energy within the ger is retained. This easy-to-use technology is effortless to install, as well as trouble-free to move whenever the family decides to relocate their ger.

This shows that there are many easy solutions that can be implemented by both the government and the residents of Ulaanbaatar to prevent air pollution from getting worse. The most important element is awareness and cooperation.

“Everything starts with a change in attitude, and Mongolia has a long way to go compared with other countries,” says Karlsen. “Most of the precautions that have been put in place so far in regard to the environment in Mongolia have failed. Things need to be changed based on documented and scientific research and methods,” he says.

“Ultimately, without improvements, the capital may need to be moved or a new one needs to be built due to the the horrific air pollution,” argues Karlsen.