Extreme air pollution in Mongolia continues to place the country among the most polluted in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO’s 2014 report on global air pollution ranks the developing nation the seventh most polluted country on the globe. With a population of only 2.9 million, pollution exposure levels are six to seven times higher than the most lenient WHO numbers. The population shift from rural to urban areas has intensified poor air quality in Ulaanbaatar and made air pollution a main concern for its citizens in recent years.

“Today, children are suffering from many unfamiliar illnesses caused by air pollution,” said Gerelchimeg, a mother living in one of Ulaanbaatar’s low-income districts. “As a mother, I am very worried about my children’s health and my neighbors’ newborns.”

The majority of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives in gers, traditional Mongolian dwellings where the burning of coal and wood for heat significantly contribute to the poor air quality of the city.

The Mongolian government has endorsed efforts to provide smokeless coal, improved stoves, gasification and solar heating to ger families in recent years; however, the challenge to fully implement environmentally-conscious legislation while allowing citizens to maintain their traditional lifestyles remains an issue for government officials.

“Many solutions will require Ulaanbaatar citizens to change technologies and learn how to use them,” said Gailius Draugelis, lead energy specialist at The World Bank. “The local private sector will need to supply and serve these technologies.”

The increase of vehicle use in Ulaanbaatar, from 75,000 to 300,100 between 2005 and 2013, spurred increased promotion of public transportation as well as legislation regarding the disposal of “older” and “too old” vehicles. The Mongolian government has also sought to reduce emissions from three major coal-fueled power plants in the Ulaanbaatar area by regulating the amounts of specific pollutants and endorsing power plant ‘scrubbers’ and other clean energy practices.

Despite governmental efforts to reduce air pollution on a variety of levels, air quality and conditions in Mongolia have improved little. Natural factors, such as geographic location and the topography of the capital city, have also contributed to air pollution and its effects on Mongolian health, including increased rates of non-communicable diseases.

Since 2010, the U.S. foreign aid agency the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has invested in a $41.5 million project to address the causes of air pollution in the poor outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. In only three years, the corporation sold almost 100,000 energy-efficient stoves and 19,000 ger insulation sets at subsidized rates. While green technology is only a temporary solution to the overarching issue of air pollution, the MCC’s contribution to public awareness and green research activity is an investment in the clean Mongolia of tomorrow.

Although air pollution is a major global health challenge in Mongolia and developing countries throughout the world, smart foreign aid gives hope for a cleaner future.

– Paulina Menichiello

Sources: World Bank, Scientific Research, NCBI, IIP Digital
Photo: Rising Voices