Air Pollution in Mongolia: Ulaanbaatar is at High-Risk
Air pollution is when the concentration of particles or pollutants in the atmosphere reaches a state that will harm the health of living things or cause material damage. Therefore, air pollution can be defined as toxic chemicals and compounds (including those of biological origin) in the air that reach levels that pose a health risk. These toxic chemicals and compounds threaten the health of living things and, at the same time, damage the ozone layer and cause global warming to deepen day by day.
Needless to say, air pollution has severe effects on human health: Depending on the level of exposure and the type of pollutant inhaled, these severe effects range from simple symptoms such as cough and respiratory tract irritation to acute conditions such as asthma and chronic lung diseases. Furthermore, skin problems and irritations may occur due to prolonged exposure to various air pollutants. In addition, various forms of cancer can develop after breathing air pollutants. Air pollution, unfortunately, costs thousands of lives every year in all countries.
The devastating effects of air pollution are undoubtedly one of the leading elements that violate the Mongols' right to live in a safe and healthy environment (regulated by Article 16.2 of the Mongolian Constitution and Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration). The burning of raw coal in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), the world's coldest capital city, leaves the city with the catastrophic consequences of air pollution, especially during the harsh winter season. In Ulaanbaatar, whose city population has nearly tripled since 1989 and reached 1.452 million according to 2017 data, infrastructure services are insufficient for the entire population. Moreover, the temperature drops to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night means that the citizens of Ulaanbaatar, whose economic situation is very bad and therefore out of the electricity grid, have no choice but to burn raw coal. This desperation concerning the usage of raw coal increases the severity of air pollution, which reaches terrible levels and causes deaths.
We can say that since the democratisation process of Mongolia in the 1990s, rapid urbanisation, increased immigration, climate change, and extreme weather conditions have pushed the poor people in the rural areas to migrate to Ulaanbaatar in masses. Poor citizens had to live in the cities live in the regions where they set up semi-permanent camps through traditional Mongolian yurts called "ger". As a result of poverty, the population density in the gers district increases. These areas are unplanned areas located on the city's outskirts without social infrastructures such as heating and water. During the winter season, which lasts from the beginning of October to April throughout the year, the citizens living in the "ger" districts "have to" burn coal to keep themselves warm in the face of harsh winter conditions. It has been detected that the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar continues since more than 200,000 households living in the city prefer coal and other non-sustainable combustion processes (even used to burn plastic, rubber and other waste materials that are harmful to health) (ADB 2019, 9).
More than 80% of the current air pollution in Ulaanbaatar comes from the part of the city known as the ger district. Gers are circular, one-room traditional (yurts) houses made of felt wrapped in a wooden frame. Researchers estimate that at 200,000 gers, approximately 600,000 tons of raw coal was burned for heating during the winter season.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, has been one of the most polluted cities globally in terms of air pollution since 2005. During the winter season, particulate matter (PM)-2.5 (PM is small enough to disappear deep into the blood circulation in the lung tissue) in Ulaanbaatar is excessively high at 1,000 micrograms (and rises above) per cubic meter (μg/m3), which is 40 times the standard suggested by the WHO. Thus, air pollution's direct and indirect effects increase citizens' concerns day by day. For example, in the ten years from 2008 to 2018, respiratory complications increased by 6.3 times, reaching 240 per 10,000 Mongolians (GoM 2019, 56). Unfortunately, infant and under-five mortality rates also increased during this period due to air pollution, which increased its severity.
Our lungs work as a filter to protect our bodies. Hence, individuals exposed to air pollution over time face serious health problems. It should also be noted that toddlers and babies breathe faster than adults. Thus, infants and children are the most vulnerable to exposure to air pollution. Unfortunately, infant and child deaths, which are exposed to the harmful consequences of air pollution, are high in Mongolia. Parents created a solution, albeit temporarily, to prevent these deaths by sending their young children to their relatives living in the countryside during the winter season. According to this equation, children return to their families, to the city, with the arrival of spring. Consequently, air pollution in Mongolia poses significant problems not only in terms of health but also in terms of social and pedagogical factors.
In 2017, concerns about the air pollution crisis in Mongolia led to hundreds of people taking to the streets and protesting across the country. During the protests, the parents and the protesters gathered in the square where the government buildings are located in Ulaanbaatar and held "Clean air for the future of our children!", "Wake up and smell the smog!", "We can't breathe!" banners. Disregarding 20 degrees below zero, the protesters demanded that the government take action to combat air pollution, which negatively affects children's health. Protesters called on the government to increase the number of beds in overcrowded hospitals where children have been treated and create a plan to reduce air pollution by 80 per cent by 2018. In addition, air filters were requested to be installed in kindergartens in the regions most affected by air pollution.
“Mongolia has not taken long-term measures to reduce [air pollution]. So, we can’t just keep refining coal,” says activist Purevkhuu Tserendorj, the head of the non-governmental organisation; Parents Against Smog. She also added that the families were in a very desperate situation regarding the severity of pollution. Accordingly, they organised this protest so that the authorities could see their anger and disappointment.
According to the report prepared by UNICEF Mongolia regarding the 2018 – 2019 winter season, air pollution has been characterised not only as an environmental problem but also as a child health crisis. Due to respiratory diseases, many patients come to the Bayanzurkh Medical Center in Ulaanbaatar every day. Unfortunately, it should be added that hospitals and the current health system are also inadequate. Chronic diseases such as bronchitis and asthma keep many children out of school. Parents who have to look after their children are also unemployed because they cannot continue their jobs. This further deepens poverty. Because it is more affordable, families living in deepening poverty continue to use raw coal (and even other harmful cheap wastes).
In response to the growing concern and demands of the public about air pollution, the Government of Mongolia, on 15 May 2019, imposed a ban on raw coal, excluding privately licensed power plants in the six central regions of Ulaanbaatar (Songinokharikhan, Bayanzurkh, Chingeltei, Khan-uul, Sukhbaatar, Bayangol). Therefore, the Government of Mongolia enacted a law completely banning raw coal's individual and commercial use. In this regard, the Government of Mongolia has ensured that an alternative product called "refined coal briquettes" is preferred at a subsidised price close to the cost of raw coal. Furthermore, household offenders will be fined 300,000 tugriks ($113) under this ban, while large businesses will be fined 3 million tugriks ($1,134). These bans and new regulations that have been put into effect have reduced the short-term consumption of raw coal. As a result, in 2019, a noticeable improvement in air quality was achieved (Ganbat et al. 2020, 2284).
However, in the first few months of implementing this new policy, eight citizens died, and a thousand were hospitalised due to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a lack of awareness of the proper burning of refined coal briquettes. In addition to this unfortunate situation, both the pandemic period experienced due to COVID-19 and the nationwide economic recession has placed low-income families in a challenging position in providing food supply. Hence, the citizens who cannot provide food, of course, cannot buy refined coal briquettes. This leads the majority of Mongolia's population to burn fuel, which contains cheap and dirty ingredients, including garbage, to keep themselves warm. According to the data reported in 2020, these reasons caused the air quality to increase again, especially in Ulaanbaatar. As a result, Ulaanbaatar was recorded as the city with the worst air quality in the world.
UNICEF's Mongolia Representative, Alex Heikens, states that the air pollution status in the country is "more than a public health crisis." Mr Heikens sees the pollution as a long-term threat to the well-being of Mongolia by damaging lungs eternally, impairing the brain development of children and threatening future productivity. "Even if we would stop the pollution now, we go down to zero today; many of these problems are already built into the population's health. In the maternity wards, a baby is born: The first breath of air is 600 micrograms per cubic meter PM2.5—24 times the acceptable level. That’s not a good start to your life," he adds.
Since then, little has changed, although the Government of Mongolia has promised substantial funds to clean the air, the equivalent of $55 million since 2008, the official state news agency Montsame reported. Additionally, this program offered by the Government of Mongolia, which distributes low-emission stoves with the support of the World Bank, is failed. In the fight against air pollution, the municipality of Ulaanbaatar offers to expand the infrastructure of the gers district. The development project, supported by The Asian Development Bank, is piloting two of the city's most polluted neighbourhoods, Bayankhoshuu and Selbe. A result of these pilot services, it is aimed to get positive output and efforts are made to prevent the residents of the region from being dependent on raw coal.
An NGO Working to End Air Pollution in Mongolia: Breathe Mongolia
Breathe Mongolia – Clean Air Coalition is an international team of professionals and citizens working to end Mongolia's current air pollution crisis. Working to educate and inform people about ending air pollution in Mongolia, Breathe Mongolia aims for a clean, sustainable and prosperous Mongolia.
Educating the people of Mongolia to protect themselves from air pollution and reduce emissions, the Breathe Mongolia team also follows policies and decisions to inform the public and promote accountability. In this regard, a bilingual digital area and a set of tools have been created to inform about the current conditions in Mongolia with quality and accurate information. Underlining that the right to breathe clean air is a fundamental human right, Breathe Mongolia works and contributes in line with the sustainable development goals set forth by the United Nations.
The pollution problems that today's world is dealing with are strongly linked to poverty. As regards, it is no coincidence that approximately 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. Children and infants face the highest risks and are the most vulnerable victims of pollution. Exposure to chemicals in the womb and early childhood is faced with a lifelong illness, disability, premature death and reduced potential for healthy development. This is also valid for the air pollution crisis in Mongolia. Many families with low incomes are vulnerable to the problems brought about by air pollution. Unfortunately, new issues caused by these problems further deepen the situation.
Of course, a better life and income for Mongolian citizens means better living conditions and environmental conditions. So, while reducing raw coal consumption and government-issued regulations is critical to improving air quality, the raw coal ban is insufficient to solve Mongolia's air pollution. Without a doubt, the main culprit behind Ulaanbaatar's air quality is the big income gap and poverty between classes. Suppose the current air pollution in Mongolia is to be reduced in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. In that case, the raw coal ban must be regulated and accompanied by social and economic policies to lift people out of poverty.