Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).
If you’ve had a chance to read some of my past blog posts, you’ll already know that winter in Mongolia is a big deal—even for a Canuck like me. While precipitation is generally light in the winter, temperatures can range all the way down to -50oC (-58oF) in many parts of the country.
So Mongolians must do what they can to stay warm. If you’re lucky enough to live in an apartment building in a city centre, your home is centrally heated. But if you live in the outer ger districts or in the countryside, the story is quite different: You must use a stove to keep your home warm. And to ensure you and your family stay warm all night long, someone—usually the mother—must get up several times in order to keep the fire stoked.
And it’s not just about keeping warm. Half of all the air pollution in UB is attributed to household heating in the ger districts, with an average family using approximately 4.5 tons of coal per year for heating and cooking (costing them about $565 USD annually). As a result, UB has been named the second most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and one in ten deaths are attributed to cancers, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems related to pollution.
Enter green loans
I had the pleasure of hosting Stev and Josh from Kiva’s headquarters here in Mongolia in mid-April. They came here for one week to work with one of our partners, Credit Mongol, and to learn more about their green loans program. Credit Mongol has been offering loans that support environmentally-friendly uses since the beginning of 2012, and these loans currently make up about one-tenth of its $11 million gross loan portfolio.
When Westerners think ‘green,’ we tend to think of solutions that involve some pretty sophisticated technologies and equipment. While the use of wind farms and solar panels does exist here and is gradually expanding, the reality in Mongolia is often much simpler. Green loans here can be used to purchase of low-emission, ceramic-lined, cast-iron stoves that are designed to have better airflow control and therefore improve combustion, allowing users to reduce coal consumption by 70-80%. The loans are also often used to help individuals purchase insulation and building materials (including double-paned windows) that reduce the amount of coal needed to heat the home, which has a positive impact both in terms of cost savings for the family and reduced pollution for the community. Another popular use of green loans here is for individuals purchasing hybrid or natural gas vehicles to operate taxi businesses, which provide an additional source of income for many Mongolian families.
So the Kiva team at Credit Mongol helped us plan a trip to one of their rural branches out in Dornod, the easternmost aimag (province) in Mongolia. Our mission was to visit some of Credit Mongol’s Kiva borrowers and to learn more about their green loans. And so the adventure began…
An epic journey
Less than 24 hours after Stev and Josh arrived from the other side of the world, we were off to an early start. Six a.m. was a bit too early for my liking, but we had 650km to cover, a journey we were told would take about 8 hours in Credit Mongol’s Land Cruiser.
As we started driving east, the city melted away but the snow remained, slowing us down. We took in the enormous Chinggis Khan statue along the way, and then continued driving until we reached the city centre of Khenti aimag 4.5 hours later. Though it was barely 11a.m., we stopped for lunch, as Batchimeg (Credit Mongol’s Kiva Coordinator) informed us there would be no other places to stop along the way.
Not even hearing this prepared me for what was to come next. As we piled back into the car, Batchimeg joked cheerfully, ‘No more sleeping!’ What followed was something I could only describe as dune-bashing in Dubai meets the Mongolian steppe (or perhaps this is what Mongol Rally is all about). The paved road ended abruptly, and was replaced by a dirt road that was anything but smooth. For the next 6.5 hours, we bounced along in our SUV, getting hurled around in the back seats and even becoming airborne on multiple occasions. This is pretty much as raw as Mongolia gets! I thanked my lucky stars for the invention of Gravol.
At first, the road was flanked by low mountains in the distance, but these soon disappeared and were replaced by the Mongolian steppes: Flat plains of yellow grass stretching out for as far as the eye can see. We spotted the occasional ger, probably belonging to a herder, but we witnessed far more animals than humans along the way. There were sheep, cows, horses, deer, and camels, as well as one monstrous bird that, standing at about 4 feet tall, made us do a double take.
No less than eleven hours after leaving UB, we arrived in Choibalsan, the city centre of Dornod, just as the sun was starting to set.
Introducing Kiva’s green loan recipients
The next day, fully rested, we set off to meet some of the Kiva borrowers. They all welcomed us warmly into their homes, and some had even been waiting around all day for our visit. We were grateful for their hospitality and had a blast connecting with these awesome individuals and their families. Here are their stories.
Iijuu’s potato farm
Iijuu has been farming for 22 years and grows mainly potatoes, carrots, and beets on the plot of land he owns with his family. With his Kiva Green loan, he purchased potato seeds and planted them in early May. All of Iijuu’s produce is organic, as is all agricultural production in Mongolia. In early September, Iijuu will begin harvesting his potatoes, and he will sell them at the local market. When asked if he had a message to his lenders, he said with a smile, ‘Thank you to all of you for enabling me to grow vegetables. I wish you all success in your work and your life.’
Gombosuren’s new family home
When Gombosuren took out his loan, he was living in a small wooden house with his wife and two sons. The house was old and in rough condition, with a roof that leaked when it rained. The house required ten tonnes of coal to keep it warm throughout the winter, thus contributing significantly to the air pollution. Since it would cost him just as much to repair his old house as it would to build a new one, he decided to take out a Kiva loan to build a new house that is warmer, more comfortable, and requires less coal to heat. He and his family are quite happy in their new home.
Ariunbold’s move to the city
Ariunbold and his family used to live in the countryside, where they worked as herders raising sheep, goats, and cows. One unfortunate year, a harsh zud killed off most of their livestock, so they were forced to migrate to the city in search of employment. They moved initially to a place they rented adjoining a grocery store, but it was hardly a proper home. So Ariunbold took out a loan in order to purchase a traditional ger. With its felt-lined walls and stove, the ger will keep himself, his wife and infant son, as well as his parents, surprisingly warm during the cold and windy Mongolian winters. ‘Living in my own home certainly improved my living standard,’ he says.
Insulation for Enkhtuya
Enkhtuya, a retired cook, has big plans to build houses on her property to help accommodate her children’s growing families. She is currently working on one, and her Kiva loan has helped her buy insulation materials such as fiberglass, planks, and steel. Her husband explained to us how they use mud, grass, and water to make blocks which will line the walls of their house to keep it warm. These types of blocks have been used since ancient times and are known to have excellent insulation properties. Enkhtuya expects that the new house will keep her family, and particularly her young grandchildren, warm and healthy throughout the winter.
Tserennadmid was busy with her clients when we stopped by her salon, but she took some time out to talk to us. She is certainly a popular stylist! Having worked in her profession for the past 8 years, she has plenty of business savvy. She and her husband are now planning to open and operate a grocery store in their backyard. She has taken out a loan in order to install an electric-heated floor in the new store, which will help reduce the amount of coal they need to burn in the stove. Her businesses will continue to help support her two young sons and her mother.
Байгаль орчинд ээлтэй (Baigal Orchind Eeltei): Being environmentally friendly in Mongolia
The next day, we were back on the rally-esque road for our long journey back to the capital. Before leaving Choibalsan, however, our colleagues took us to visit some of the war memorials. Outside the main city centre, the wind whipped around us and gave us a taste of just how cold it can get—and it wasn’t even winter anymore! The need for well insulated housing and clean-burning stoves in Mongolia became real to us in that moment.
Personal and business loans aren’t the only ways Mongolians are trying to have a positive impact on the environment. In UB, where traffic congestion is incredibly high, the government has instituted car restrictions since last September: Depending on your license plate number, people are only permitted to drive on certain weekdays. And one sunny day in April, Ulaanbaatarians poured out onto the streets as they walked about freely, enjoying the city’s annual No Car Day. And a couple of weekends ago, many of the city’s residents took part in Tree Planting Day, planting thousands of saplings throughout the Children’s Park and elsewhere.
All of these efforts are important in the face of air pollution, desertification, and other environmental issues challenging Mongolia. Driving back across the steppes from Dornod, we took in the natural beauty around us. It wasn’t hard to imagine how green these landscapes would be in just a few more weeks. Hopefully the country’s various environmental initiatives, from the individual to the government level, will help to keep it this way.
With thanks to Adam Grenier and Mathew O’Sullivan for their input.