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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Dying to breathe: A case study in air pollution

Article by: Amelia Simmons

A global phenomenon

Imagine living in a place where air pollution can reach 133 times the World Health Organization’s accepted, safe limit. That's the case in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. There are two things you are likely to notice when you first arrive in the city: the freezing cold temperatures (making it the world’s coldest capital) and the blanket of pollution filling the air. It is the latter that has transformed Ulaanbaatar into a potentially health-damaging place to call home. From the United Kingdom and France, to Indonesia and China, air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths per year. Sadly, Mongolia’s pollution problem is simply a more severe version of what is playing out around the world.

One problem, a multitude of causes

There are three main causes contributing to the capital's drastically rising pollution levels: climate change, migration, and the burning of raw coal. Each year, 40,000 people are migrating from Mongolia’s countryside to Ulaanbaatar in search of improved economic prosperity, to be able to survive. They are being forced from their land as climate change has caused deep freezes, meaning their land has become infertile, grass cannot grow, and their livestock is dying. The death of a single animal is a loss both economically, and for survival, for those living outside of the city. And, to put this into context, it is estimated an enormous 700,000 animals are now dying annually. So, people are forced to relocate to the city in the search of a better life.

When they arrive in the city, they often have very little possessions or money, so cannot afford to live in an area with running water or guaranteed electricity and central heating supplies. So, they build their own yurts tents in the city's ever-expanding suburbs. As temperatures outside often reach as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter, it is paramount they have a source of heat. This comes in the form of coal-burning stoves, often built in the centre of their yurts. The problem with this is there are now 500,000 coal-burning stoves in the city. These emit copious amounts of toxic particles which are small enough to bypass the body’s defences.

How is this impacting lives?

With more than two-thirds of Mongolia’s population residing in its capital, a staggering 1.5 million people are being affected by these catastrophic levels of pollution. Children, in particular, are the most susceptible to respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia, with these being the biggest killer of children under 5. But these tiny, deadly particles, known as PM2.5, are not age discriminative. Adults are also at risk of cardiovascular disease, brain damage, miscarriages, and cancer, to name a few. Twenty years ago, residents claimed this problem was minuscule compared to today, but with climate change, migration, and pollution levels all dramatically rising, this disastrous problem is predicted to only get worse.

Solutions are on the way

The simple answer to solving Ulaanbaatar’s pollution crisis is to eradicate the use of raw coal. But this is unrealistic. Raw coal offers a cheap, efficient way to create heat which is paramount to survival for the city’s poorest citizens. Despite a city-wide ban on the substance since 2018, pollution levels are still highly dangerous as many residents have no choice but to continue burning it. Their economic circumstances mean most simply cannot afford alternative methods of heating. This has been exacerbated by recent shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic which have sadly worsened socio-economic conditions even further. Therefore, other, more practical, affordable, and small-scale methods are being trialled.

The European Union is one institution supporting the Switch Off Air Pollution (SOAP) project which aims to reduce raw coal consumption in Ulaanbaatar’s poorest districts. Their work has focussed on micro-level assistance, to enterprises and households, by training small collectives of construction craftsmen on how to insulate houses using cost-effective materials that are available on the Mongolian market. So far, over 30 people have been trained to help families in these districts insulate their homes in energy efficient ways, using quality, low-cost, and locally available materials. It is estimated that over the next two years, the SOAP project will help retrofit 1,000 homes to be more energy efficient, saving 1,200 tons of raw coal per household and significantly reducing air pollution in Ulaanbaatar.

Vaccinations against the effects of air pollution?

Another initiative aiming to offer a way from directly banning raw coal, is the PCV13 vaccine programme. This was implemented to protect vulnerable groups, such as children and pregnant women, from cardiovascular diseases such as pneumonia. Whilst efforts are still ongoing, 60% of these vulnerable groups, including 40,000 children, are now vaccinated and less susceptible to being negatively impacted from air pollution. Despite this not addressing the cause of the problem, it will dramatically increase the resilience of Ulaanbaatar's residents.

Education, education, education

Aside from this, the power of education has been utilised to educate residents on how to safely burn raw coal substitutes. The government has heavily subsidised other, less polluting, types of fuel. However, in October 2019 alone, 12 people were sadly killed due to smoke-related accidents involving these replacements. So, officials began visiting thousands of homes to demonstrate how to safely use their stoves and reduce the lack of information initially provided. The information has also been broadcast on mainstream media channels such as the radio and television. Therefore, residents can confidently use less-polluting substances and contribute to making their city’s air cleaner.

What the future may hold

Whilst no remarkable results have been recorded yet regarding Ulaanbaatar’s actual pollution levels, these projects offer a positive glimmer of hope. It will take time for the world's most polluted city to become a safer, healthier, place to live. But, for those residing here, these changes have the potential to eventually reduce the health risks associated with living here. And, with some hard-work and unity, the city may become the unpolluted, less hazardous place it once was.

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