Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s icy capital, is the world’s second most-polluted city according to a recent Quartz study cited by TIME magazine. I’ve traveled a fair amount in Asia, which as a region faces many environmental issues due to its rapid industrialization and urbanization. However, before living in UB I could never have imagined air pollution so bad. When I pull back my curtains in the morning the city looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi or horror movie. Buildings two blocks away are nearly invisible, veiled in a gray haze. Soviet-era minibuses cruise down the street, disappearing into a blanket of smog after a block and a half. On some days I can’t count the number of children on the soccer field from my apartment building less than 100 yards away. How they’re braving the thick haze, not to mention the -15 C weather, I will never fully understand.
Air pollution is measured by the number of airborne particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter per cubic meter (PM10). At this size, the particles easily become trapped in human lung tissue leading to asthma and bronchitis and contributing to heart disease and other respiratory and cardio-vascular maladies. Recent studies have also found strong correlations between elevated PM10 and higher prevalence of cancer of the mouth, larynx, and lungs. The world’s average annual pollution count in major cities is 71 PM10 according to the 2013 Quartz study. [The World Health Organization’s recommended target level is less than 10 PM10 per cubic meter.] In Ulaanbaatar, the average annual level is 279 PM10, according to the same Quartz study.
Shockingly, in the winter air pollution levels are many times higher than the yearly average mainly due to the massive amounts of coal required for heating a city where the average high temperature is -10 C between November and late February. In recent years during December, January, and February, PM10 measurements have been reported between 750 and 1,500 PM10. One independent air quality observer recently reported levels exceeding 2,000 particles per cubic meter! At these levels, citizens are essentially breathing in inescapable smoke! A 2011 joint World Health Organization and Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Green Development study found that the levels of particulate matter in UB are more than 35 times higher than the WHO’s recommended standards.
The suffocating pollution is caused by a number of factors. First, coal-fired power plants located within the city’s borders spew out thick smoke without the EPA emissions standards in place in the United States or Europe. Second, transportation contributes an increasing share each year as the city’s roads, designed to accommodate 500,000 people, are burdened by nearly 1.2 million. Tens of thousands of new vehicles are on the road each year, adding to already intolerable traffic woes and smog. However, the leading cause of the poor air quality is energy consumption in the city’s peripheral ger districts, which are comprised of former nomads relying on coal burning stoves to stay warm and cook. It is estimated that these quasi-temporary squatter settlements grow by roughly 15,000 people each year. Most lack access to basic needs such as clean water, adequate sanitation, and, of course, electricity.
So what are the effects of these astronomical levels of air pollution on Ulaanbaatar’s residents? Accounts vary, but a 2012 article in the Mongolia Briefing reported that roughly 1600 deaths and an additional 8,500 hospital admissions are due to pollution-related causes. A 2011 study found that an estimated 1 in 10 citizens of UB die of pollution-related causes. It’s not hard to consider that this rate may be even higher when, during the winter months, breathing the outside air is equivalent to smoking 4 to 5 packs of cigarettes a day! The aforementioned joint WHO-Ministry of Nature study found:
…that pollution levels in some locations of Ulaanbaatar are so high that the study team is not aware of similar high monitored particulate matter (PM) values in any other city in the world. In order to bring concentrations in line with Mongolia’s air quality standards, emissions have to be reduced by more than 90 percent. (The Mongolia Briefing.)
I live in one of the areas referred to above – on the border of the ger district north of downtown UB. The overwhelming burden of the pollution falls on the poor inhabiting these boroughs mostly because the residents cannot afford any means other than coal, wood, or even trash to stay warm or cook. According to an October article in the UB Post “ger districts produce as much as 70 to 90 percent of the air pollution in the winter.” Due to the inversion created by the valley and extremely cold temperatures, which traps the hot, polluted air, the highest concentrations of particulate matter stay in these areas. While I am fortunate enough to be able to afford a pollution mask and an air purifier for my room, I walk past coughing, wheezing, and sputtering residents daily who are not able to afford such luxuries.
So, what has the government done to help fix the public health crisis? Many Mongolians are very frustrated with the level of governmental ineffectiveness. A couple weeks ago, looking outside through our classroom window a co-worker turned to me suddenly and said “our politicians are very bad!” [Earlier that day the pollution was such that my students had difficulty seeing the PowerPoint presentation on the screen due to the obscuring effect of the projector illuminating the floating particulate matter. As soon as I entered the classroom my mouth was filled with a chalky texture and smoky taste, my throat became scratchy, my chest burned dully, and my eyes started to water. This is not normal, thankfully.]As my co-teacher voiced, the city’s politicians and bureaucrats appear to be failing its residents. As quoted in the UB Post, Chief of the City Air Quality Office, Ch.Batsaikhan, said:
There is talk that Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted city… Mongolia is not leading the world with its dust… There are lots of factors that generate dust and particles, such as roadwork, construction and population density. But we have to take action against this. We have to develop green areas, and increase the number of small fountains. Most highly developed cities wash their roads and squares. That is why we are planning to wash roads next year. If we wash public roads and areas, dust must decrease.
Creating more fountains? Cleaning the streets!? How can this be a serious response to a question about emissions? This quote seems to undermine the credibility and competence of the city office spearheading the issue by exposing a complete misunderstanding or willingness to overlook the true causes of the pollution problem. More recently, the mayor met with representatives of Mitsubishi Motors and issued a statement encouraging the population to buy electric cars, at best a weak step towards reducing transportation-related emissions.
What else is being done? Since the passing of a 2011 Clean Air Act, the Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Green Development has allocated its 92 million tugrik budget to programs to subsidize cleaner burning coal briquettes, while admitting the suppliers wouldn’t be able to meet the entire city’s demand. It has also subsidized cleaner-burning stoves for those in the ger districts with limited effectiveness. [Many residents refuse to buy any new stoves due to their extremely limited incomes, favoring Soviet-era technology.]
Despite research findings of international experts, which he publicly questioned, the Minister of Nature, Environment, and Green Development declared a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions and nearly 30 percent drop in particulate matter since last year. Still, many residents wonder where the figures are coming from and where the money went. “The pollution here is as bad as ever, and most people think it’s even worse than last year,” one local reported.