Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution crisis: Summertime complacency won’t solve the wintertime problem

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No mountains are visible beyond this pollution cloud. (Late November 2007)

It certainly feels like the worst of winter is over for another year, well until December anyway. Daytime temperatures now reach above 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) regularly, the city’s ice sculptures have melted and the slippery footpaths have thawed, making walking in the city safer and easier. There’s also a visible improvement in Ulaanbaatar’s (UB) air quality.

On most days, from my office window, I can now see the beautiful snow-dappled mountains that surround UB; during the heavily polluted winter months the horizon is completely hidden behind a thick grey-brown smoky haze. 

UB is the coldest capital city in the world and during the coldest months of the year—December, January and February—the air quality is dangerously bad. In fact, UB is fast becoming the world’s most polluted city; a remarkable achievement considering its population only hovers around the 1.2 million mark.

The pollution is visibly worse in the wintertime. This is because coal-fueled ger (traditional felted tents) stoves and boilers used for heating and cooking produce toxic black smoke plumes that hover like a blanket over the often windless city. The chokingly-thick pollution is a result of a combination of factors: the poor combustion of coal in what are essentially wood stoves, the congested road traffic (it’s too cold to walk and many cars are of a substandard quality), the dry ground condition and industry.

UB choking under a blanket of smoke. Unbelievably there’s a city down there.

For about eight months of the year heating is essential for the survival of residents. 60 percent of the city’s residents live in peri-urban ger districts; areas populated in the main by very poor people from Mongolia’s rural areas who are arriving in a steady flow. UB’s population has expanded by 70 percent over the last 20 years and unfortunately the city’s infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the growth. In these areas, which are mainly located upwind of the city, the only source of heating are poor quality stoves or individual household boilers fueled by coal, wood and in some cases rubbish—varying from black tar dipped bricks to old car tires. UB’s remaining citizens live in apartment buildings heated by three coal-burning heat and power stations. All forms of household heating in UB contribute to the air pollution problem.

The number of cars on the city’s roads seems to be increasing daily. In such a small city, one that’s easily navigable by foot, people sit in grid-locked traffic for hours. Drivers beep their horns impatiently and ineffectually, hoping for movement, while pumping carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air and the faces of those braving the cold or waiting to cross the street. When cars do move, further dust is released into the air, especially in the ger areas where most of the roads remain unpaved. 

Additionally, according to the Bank’s joint research with the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Air Research Institute, one of the worst sources of the pollution is dust. The dust originates from the ger heating appliances, the desert, the dry ground condition and the ash ponds emanating from the power plants. With few trees and hardly any parkland in UB, the regularity and severity of windstorms in the city is increasing, creating dangerous levels of airborne dust. Strong winds, particularly in spring, also allow dust from the Gobi desert and other arid regions of Mongolia to reach the city.

On a bad day, the city’s air pollution is so thick you cough when you walk outside. I’ve also witnessed cars turning on their headlights at 10am for visibility. An Australian woman who volunteers at the Bank refuses to walk outside without wearing a heavy-duty air pollution mask. People often laugh at her ridiculous appearance, she’s even been photographed by children passing her in the street, but she’s seriously worried about the potential long-term damage. What about the Mongolian people? What about the children being born here? A woman in our office is due to give birth within the next two months. After she has her baby in UB, she’s planning to spend at least two months out in the countryside, as it’s a sure strategy to guarantee her newborn child is breathing in clean air. She is concerned for her child’s health here in UB.

Smoke billowing from one of the UB’s power stations. It’s so thick it obscures the sun.
In UB, annual average particulate matter concentrations (PM10, i.e., particles that cause damage in the lungs when inhaled) have been recorded at as high as 279. To put this into perspective, the World Health Organization’s recommended PM10 level is 20. This means that UB’s PM10 levels are 14 times higher than the WHO’s recommendation. UB has left Northern China’s most polluted cities in its wake.
The health implications of the pollution are shocking. Levels of premature death, chronic bronchitis, respiratory hospital admissions and cardiovascular diseases are increasing at an extraordinarily rapid rate. Something must be done.

As the weather warms up, there is a danger that the wintertime levels of pollution will become a distant memory. But rather than forgetting about the problem, now should be the time for action. Some experts claim the solution is to relocate ger area residents into apartment buildings, but who will pay for these apartments and their water, electricity, heating and maintenance bills? Other experts recommend the installation of new, better-quality heating appliances, combined with enforcing the use of environmentally friendly fuel. But again, who will pay for this? Other options include better insulation for gers and houses, increased public education, a strengthening of pollution monitoring and enforcement and improving the city’s heating network.
The truth is there’s no easy answer, there’s no single solution. Only one thing is certain…if we are complacent now, the wintertime air pollution problem will return again and again.

Click here to view the Mongolia: Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar - Initial Assessment of Current Situation and Effects of Abatement Measures report. This report was published in Mongolia in March 2010 and provides effective and economical air pollution abatement strategies.

Click here to view the Mongolia: Enhancing Policies and Practices for Ger Area Development in Ulaanbaatar report. This report was published in Mongolia in March 2010 and provides urban policy makers with sustainable ger area development strategies.

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