Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summer Ritual

It has taken so long to happen that I foolishly thought this year we might all escape a summer ritual in Ulaanbaatar. It turns out that it is a summer ritual that affects millions of people across the Eurasian continent who are unlucky enough to live in flats supported by a Soviet designed infrastructure. I learned this fact last summer when a reporter from the BBC did a report on the very same ritual happening in Kiev, Ukraine in his apartment block. What ritual, you may ask? The ritual of losing hot water service for 2-3 weeks each summer for "cleaning and maintenance" on the pipes. Hot showers are a distant memory at my apartment block until July 6th when service starts again.

This summer ritual is a curious aspect of the heating and water systems constructed under the Soviet-style centralized economic model. Until seeing the BBC report last year, I had always thought it was a phenomenon special to Ulaanbaatar. However, it seems we are not alone in being deprived the luxury of hot water for the sake of the system.

Someone in the diplomatic corps once told me about a similar situation in China. The Chinese government notified his embassy that hot water service would be discontinued for several weeks for "maintenance" at the diplomatic housing complex. The foreign service officer then replied to the Chinese government by telling them if that was the case, then the embassy would expect a reduction in the price of rent paid on the diplomatic housing. The government balked at this. But the embassy persisted on the claim that reduced service meant reduced payment. The response on the Chinese side was to complete the maintenance in 3 days rather than the normal 3 weeks, which saved the government from losing much sought after rent money but caused another problem altogether. It demonstrated to everyone else that it was possible for the work to be done quickly if the right incentives were in place.

Sometimes I wonder if the summer ritual in Mongolia might also lack the proper incentives to make it shorter overall. That is the reason I call it a ritual. I am not entirely convinced the long wait is anything more than bureaucratic sloth manifest as a yearly occurrence. It's of course silly to complain too much about not having hot water in a city where a significant portion of the population does not even have access to running water hot or cold, but it is indicative of larger problems of efficiency and administration that affect everyone. At any rate, for the next couple of weeks I join millions of other people in the world experiencing this summer ritual.


yan said...

"This summer ritual is a curious aspect of the heating and water systems constructed under the Soviet-style centralized economic model."

I think it is an aspect of Soviet design rather than of a Soviet-style central planning economy. East German appartment blocs have hot water the whole year round.

They also have sewage pipes that can deal with toilet paper.

Barbie Jeanne said...

This too reminds me of when I first moved to China in the early '90's from Southern California. It was late August and after traveling 18 hours to get to our new home, we found no hot water for showers. It took about 10 minutes of running the water to get the rust out of the pipes and alas, cold, dirty & smelly water began to appear. I learned to thank God for many things I had previously taken for granted.