“I No Longer Know What A Healthy Lung Sounds Like”: Ulaan Baatar’s Pollution Crisis

Every winter Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baatar is shrouded in a thick blanket of toxic air poisoning its residents. “I no longer know what a healthy lung sounds like… Everybody has bronchitis or some other problem, especially during winter,” says Ganjargal Demberel, a doctor in Ulaan Baatar’s hardest hit district. Coal stoves and power plants provide much-needed warmth in the harsh conditions however beneath the smokestacks lie Mongolia’s children struggling to breathe. Seven-month-old Gal-Erdene Sumiya suffers from pneumonia, “I can’t bring him outside to get any air, because it’s so polluted,” says his mother. Pneumonia cases spike every winter and daily life is regulated by pollution, Stephanie Hegarty reports for the BBC that the situation is borderline ‘apocalyptic.’

Toxic air has been a recent phenomenon as urbanization and a changing climate have disrupted the nomadic way of life. Average precipitation is declining and Mongolia’s lethal winters (dzuds) have grown more frequent, bringing mass starvation of livestock and throwing families into debt. “Nature is changing, the grasslands are turning into deserts, rivers and streams are disappearing,” said Tsendmandakh Altantsetseg, 16-year-old nomad to KCET news. “I’m planning to go to university in the city after I graduate. I’ll follow my profession, work in the city and build a life there.” The steppe’s future seems bleak as more are people are abandoning traditional ways of living and moving to the city. Almost half of Mongolia’s population are condensed into the capital, urban sprawl goes unchecked, and the unregulated urban landscape spreads far beyond local authorities ability to sustain its inhabitants. Basic utilities remain inaccessible for the majority of the population while reliance on cheap coal and substandard shelters have exacerbated the situation. Migrants are both the cause and victims of pollution; unregulated migration and few energy alternatives have thrown the city into a downward spiral.

Alex Heikens, UNICEF’s Mongolian representative states that the crisis threatens the countries future generations, long-term brain damage, scarred lungs and hindering brain development. “Even if we would stop the pollution now, we go down to zero today, many of these problems are already built into the health of the population,” he says. Handheld pollution monitors often max out, with levels soaring dozens of times above recommended levels. PM-2.5, the most dangerous of air particles, is 13 times above the World Health Organization’s maximum threshold. Visibility is severely hindered, buildings are distinguished through their outlines, and vehicles simply vanish within the smog.

The fog, says economist Jargal Dambadarjaa “is becoming thicker and thicker.” The authorities have prioritized the people financing them instead of the people they should serve. Combatting the issue has been slow and often ineffective, as the policies designed to curb migration have resulted in illegal housing. The efforts to outlaw low-grade coal fail to address the needs within Ulaan Baatar’s hardest hit districts. Sukhgerel Dugersuren, chairperson within the mining oversight group, You Tolgoi Watch states that the move to refined coal does not address long-term issues, “There is reluctance to take on new things, or maybe just no capacity,” she says. Chinese money is the lifeblood for Mongolia’s economy, all of which finance coal mines. Because of this, Mongolia, despite having the capacity for renewable energies (wind and sunshine), remains dependent on coal.  “Ulaan Baatar is already suffocating from its coal use,” Sukhgerel stated, with plans for a railway link with China, it seems a transition from coal will take years to come. Experts have argued continuously that a change in the city’s infrastructure is dire in ensuring the future health of its residents. Despite Mongolia’s reputation as ‘the land of eternal blue sky,’ half of its population continues to lie beneath the smokestacks, choking on poison with no feasible solution in sight.

Jonno McPike