SEATTLE — Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is one of the world’s ten most polluted cities. It is also the world’s coldest city. According to UNICEF, winter temperatures can drop to -40℃. Air pollution in Mongolia puts many lives at risk.
Ulaanbaatar sits in a valley on the Tuul River, which traps much of the pollution. 2011 data showed that fine particulate matter is often 6-7 times higher than World Health Organization standards permit. The blanket of dust and smoke covering the city during cold and polluted winter months can be so bad that it obscures vision, sometimes leading to traffic accidents on the roads and at the airport.
According to a report by Al Jazeera, the city has a population of 1.5 million, 60 percent of which lives in brick housing and traditional gers, nomadic tents or yurts. When moving to Ulaanbaatar, former herders brought their gers to settle around the outskirts of the city. Many also brought traditional stoves, which burn coal and wood for cooking and heating. These makeshift houses often lack basic utilities and sanitation.
Pollution in Ulaanbaatar is caused by power plants, dust from deserts, dirt roads, vehicles and a lack of vegetation. However, according to The World Bank, the primary cause of pollution – 60 to 70 percent – is from the burning of wood and coal in 175,000 of the households in ger areas. Chimneys are short, and exhaust from stoves is emitted straight into home environments.
UNICEF’s report shows that indoor air pollution causes 4.3 million deaths per year, 13 percent of which are children under the age of 5. Among this group, respiratory infections, such as asthma and pneumonia, are one of the leading causes of death. Pollution can also lead to the development of lung cancer and heart disease.
Studies have also found that air pollution is directly related to birth defects and miscarriages. Researchers at the Saban Research Institute of the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles found that, of the data collected from 10,000 women, pregnancy loss is most common between November and January, when the temperature reaches extreme lows and pollution levels are highest.
The rural-to-urban migration is not slowing down, many migrants continuing to travel with their gers and traditional stoves. Many of those living in gers cannot afford any environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Pollution-related illnesses are hard to treat because most migrants do not register with local administrations. Moreover, they are often unaware of the clinical procedures necessary to protected their health. According to Al Jazeera America, in the ger districts, babies are born with problems such as hypoxia, when the fetus’ oxygen levels are too low; cleft palets, underdeveloped organs; and developmental problems.
The Government of Mongolia is working with the support of the World Bank to mobilize $45 million in donor assistance to address these problems. The World Bank has also approved a $15 million Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project, implemented by Ulaanbaatar Municipality.
These efforts aim to enable residents in ger areas to gain access to modern heating, such as natural gas or propane, which are more eco-friendly and produce fewer emissions. The project will also explore options for providing affordable housing in Ulaanbaatar, as well as ways to improve access to heat and hot water.
According to the World Bank, in order to achieve acceptable air quality standards, particulate emissions need to be reduced by 94 percent from the levels in ger areas.
The Mongolian government is also being encouraged to improve health infrastructure in ger areas so that women can have better access to healthcare during their pregnancy. Additionally, access to healthcare will provide much-needed support to young children who suffer from illnesses caused by the city’s pollution. UNICEF is focusing on ways to reduce incidences of pneumonia by introducing vaccines and better nutrition to those living in ger communities.
– Michelle Simon