The air pollution rates in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, exceeded the international safe limit set by The World Health Organization by seven times, causing a health crisis, particularly among Mongolia’s youth.
The Ger Districts in Ulaanbaatar
Air pollution in Mongolia is caused, in part, by Ulaanbaatar’s topography, climatic conditions, peaking population, lacking infrastructure and heavy reliance on coal for up to eight months of the year. Ulaanbaatar was built in a river valley with surrounding mountains that trap the city’s smog.
Nearly half of Mongolia’s population – 1.5 million – resides in Ulaanbaatar where the vast majority of Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is caused by those living in the ger districts in the north. Named for the traditional nomadic dwellings of Mongolia’s herding lifestyle, a ger is a circular tent with bedding and furniture surrounding the stove: the one thing making the harsh climate of Mongolia bearable.
Ulaanbaatar’s severe air pollution problem stems primarily from the unplanned and inadequate urban planning of the ger districts. Due to uncertainty regarding land ownership and migrant workers’ relocation to the city in search of work, the ger districts have sprung up all over Ulaanbaatar. Ger areas lack basic services, such as sewer systems, running water and trash collection.
As the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar can see temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius – contributing to the population’s heavy use of coal to keep warm. In fact, to keep warm from the harsh Mongolian weather, Ulaanbaatar residents have burned over a million tons of raw coal per year. In 2016, Ulaanbaatar surpassed New Delhi and Beijing as the capital with the highest levels of air pollution in the world.
Dangerous Effects of Air Pollution on Children
In the last ten years, Mongolia’s air pollution crisis and, consequently, related respiratory diseases have increased dramatically. The effects of air pollution in Mongolia are felt most severely by the country’s children. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to air pollution due to their small lungs and their still-developing immune systems.
According to UNICEF, children living in Ulaanbaatar have a high risk of getting lower respiratory infections than those living in rural areas. Airborne chemicals and toxins associated with air pollution can also complicate pregnancies, starving the fetus of oxygen, which can cause birth defects like irreversibly stunting brain growth or result in miscarriages. Children exposed to these toxins are more likely to have lower IQs, exhibit behavioral problems and neurological disorders.
UNICEF Mongolia warned of a “child health crisis” in February 2018. Data from the reports of health officials suggests a 3.5-fold increase in fetal mortality rates between summer and winter, and a “near-perfect correlation between still births and air toxicity.” Respiratory infections have nearly tripled and pneumonia is the second leading cause of death for children under five.
The High Cost of Air Pollution
The National Center for Public Health and UNICEF released a joint report in February 2018 highlighting the severity of Mongolia’s air pollution crisis. The report states that unless Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution levels drastically decrease in the next few years, the cost of treating air pollution-related diseases in children will increase 33 percent by 2025.
In addition to the health risks associated with air pollution – stillbirth, preterm birth, lower birth weight, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and death – Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is also costing the public health system MNT 4.8 billion per year (just over $2 million) by 2025.
The residents of Ulaanbaatar have become desperate to rid themselves of the pollution. Stores and pharmacies have begun selling “lung tea” and “oxygen cocktails,” though WHO officials say there is no evidence that these Russian-made “anti-smog” products work. Pregnant women are among the products’ most avid buyers.
What is being Done to Reduce Air Pollution in Mongolia
Realistic recommendations to reduce the severity of Mongolia’s air pollution crisis include strengthening public education campaigns to increase awareness of the health issues associated with air pollution, use of clean technologies and fuels and greater use of the Pneumococcal Vaccine, which will have an immediate impact on the children of Ulaanbaatar exposed to heavy air pollution.
Furthermore, improvement of indoor air quality in public kindergartens, schools and hospitals as well as guidance for the public on the use and access of high-quality face masks will greatly help reduce the effects of Mongolia’s air pollution.
In March 2018, the government of Mongolia went to The Asian Development Bank to request financial assistance to address Ulaanbaatar’s severe air pollution problem. This policy-based loan will help to prioritize and expand upon public resources for pollution reduction efforts and update urban energy and transport systems, encouraging cost-effective actions.
Some individuals are taking Mongolia’s air pollution crisis into their own hands. Odgerel Gamsukh, a 34-year-old architect, has started a company to turn the unplanned and heavily polluted city of Ulaanbaatar into a green community. This community would be comprised of solar-heated, permanant ger structures, which would add windows, solar collectors and insulation to the traditional model.
Both the problem of air pollution and the solutions, i.e. green building, are relatively new to Mongolia. Traditional Mongolian culture involved a nomadic lifestyle expressed by the mobile ger homes. Modernization, increasing urban populations and inadequate infrastructure have exacerbated the health issues related to air pollution in Mongolia. If efforts such as Gamsukh’s green community and foreign aid assistance programs continue, there is hope of seeing a reduction in Mongolia’s air pollution crisis.
– Kara Roberts