Pollution for breakfast, lunch and dinner


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Editor's Note: The following post also appears on Dave Lawrence's personal blog, Out of Mongolia.    

The winter air in Ulaanbaatar is hard to imagine. It is basically a thick blanket of smoke spewing out from the stoves of thousands of people living in gers, which are traditional Mongolian homes made from wooden frames covered in felt. Raw coal is the main fuel, since it is much cheaper than wood. Traffic and power plants play their part too, but it's the smoke from the gers that makes breathing such a challenge at this time of year.

Half a million people in the city live in the ger districts. They are mostly poor; recent migrants from the countryside in search of better lives. The poorest cannot even afford coal, and burn whatever they get their hands on.  Even garbage and old tires. Just think of what's going into the air.

Ulaanbaatar in May (top) and December (bottom)

From a distance, you can see a yellow-brown band smothering the city. Above it, the sky is clear and you can see the mountains and a bright, blue sky. But within the band, everything is swallowed in toxic darkness. Driving into it fills you with dread.

You can't blame people for trying to keep warm in winter. But what a price. Breathing that stuff 24/7 has got to be tough, especially for children. I wonder what the long-term health consequences will be. Not good, I'm afraid.

Fortunately, the issue is getting a lot of attention now. Improving the quality of life in Ulaanbaatar is a pillar of the World Bank's strategy for 2008-11, and dealing with pollution is a part of it. Let's hope it works.

The high price of electricity


David Lawrence

Communications Consultant

Join the Conversation

Ken Iwamasa
February 11, 2009

Your photos remind me of what LA looked like in the 60's and on some days, this is what Denver, CO looks like, even today, in the US. So why pick on Mongolia, we have been making bigger and better pollution for decades. Ken

sonya tarjanyi
February 13, 2009

The number one problem in the world is overpopulation. There should be more governmental programs to help citizens with family planning. Number two, more environmentally friendly power sources should be used such as wind powered electricity and solar powered electricity. Carbon powered electricity should become obsolete.


Sonya Tarjanyi

February 15, 2009

The problem is not overpopulation. There is just a bad distribution of wealth.

February 15, 2009

Ken, I agree that the U.S. has had its share of pollution issues to say the least. However, I find your comparison to UB unrealistic. It is not reasonable to draw such conclusions from a couple of photos. I have an apartment in UB and have travelled there in excess of twenty times. You must experience the pollution to gain a proper grasp of the severity. It is on a scale that is difficult to wrap your mind around.

Citizen of UB
February 15, 2009

Thank you for being so aware and conscious about UB's air pollution. It's been a disastrous problem for a long time. People in the government are talking too much, but doing so little. It is getting warmer soon, but nothing has been done to overcome the air pollution, which means it still will be the biggest harmful issue through the next year.

(I'm afraid that some government officials might say that: Yeah, it is summer-time to forget about air pollution.)

February 17, 2009

This is my hometown. Four years ago, the pollution was not this bad and the problem has got much worse over only few years.

I've also noticed a deterioration of lives of the people throughout UB (while the rich are getting richer). So, I think the overall increase of the number of poor people (from the city) that adds to the ger community (in addition to the new movers from the countryside) is the main reason for this pollution problem. It is not that the Mongolian population is growing so fast, but it is because of rapid urbanization and the creation of slums around the whole city.

The increasing price for all the commodities and services is making even the middle class families worse off, making some of them to move into gers from apartments.

People are going to continue using coal instead of wood because they just can't afford it and the only way to get out of this problem is make living conditions in the countryside better so that people will have an incentive to stay there, create more jobs and most importantly, the politicians should stop bribing each other for more money and just draw their attention to the population.

I am sure if they really can do that, they will overcome this problem. It is not like UB has large chemical factories or anything.

February 17, 2009

Air pollution is the most serious problem for us - the people living in Ulaanbaatar, and our babies. What I want most is fresh air for my babies. Many projects and programmes are being implemented to solve the problem, but unfortunately their results are not obvious.

Thus, I beg the God (the weather) to let Ulaanbaatar have strong and strong wind during the whole winter. Or the shamans should beg for the sky to blow a wind! What shall I (we) do, since it seems that the "authorities" have an interest to be with air pollution, maybe more terrible, which is understood to be one of sources for them to get "fatter".

In fact, as a mom who wants my babies to be healthy, I believe that a few big fans intalled around the city may more easily help us to get rid of this polluted air, because it is almost impossibe in terms of money and time to change the cultural behaviour of the Mongolians, who reside in such a tiny dwelling called gerr without any heating system other than its stove, and winter weather, which is very harsh and cold.

February 20, 2009

One of the significant contribution to air pollution in UB is the smoke coming out of the cars. I cannot stop wondering why vehicle smoke emission is so poorly supervised and managed in Mongolia. In recent years, Mongolians stared buying used cars that primarily come from Japan, China, and Korea. The number of cars increased 4 or 5 times in the last few years. These used cars create an incredible amount of smoke and the government should implement better policies to curb this smoke. One can easily bribe the emission evaluator at the DMV and drive cars/buses that create an incredible amount of smoke. This can be curbed. Why don't the World Bank or IFC officials inform the government how to create an effective policy and agency to reduce the smoke coming out of the used cars. How does the US or Canada manage these issues? Is there anything we can learn from them? I choked with smoke even in May because of the car smoke! It was sad to experience this reality in my home town!

david paye
March 04, 2009

Pollution in UB must be one of the highest in the world - a good friend of mine returned to London last week fearing for the health of her small baby. No longer the land of the blue sky?

Michael Brown
March 10, 2009

I am just curious, but have the people of UB collectively, in some manner, analysed the pollution situation, and informed their leadership of what they wish to do? Or is it a situation where everyone expresses an opinion, government has a program that may or may not be adequate, may or may not be enforced, and pollution carries on unabated or worsens over time? Has the population of UB expressed itself, at all collectively, as to where pollution stands on priorities that must be faced in UB and in Mongolia?

Sunaree Marshall
July 16, 2009

There is a National Air Quality Office of Mongolia, established within the last two years that is working on the issue: http://naqo.mn/

One key thing to think about is how to promote better insulation of structures in the ger districts so that people will have to use less fuel. This is not just an environmental and health problem, but a household economy one as well. Some families in the ger districts spend as much as 60% of their income on fuel because of inefficient housing.

Yes, of course you can't blame people for trying to keep warm. But how can we help them keep warm while using and polluting less?

Rasika Gokhale Athawale
November 05, 2009

Across the world growing cities are facing these problems - and many others - due to exponential increase in population (mostly migrants from poor countrysides) without much addition to infrastructure facilities to meet their needs.

I was reading about China's Hukou system a couple of days back; and it seemed to be such a nice way of controlling these problems at the core. But alas the Chinese have also now purposefully done away with Hukou requirements at some places - where they need migrant labour to fuel city growth.