Extreme winter temperatures, poor infrastructure and urban sprawl creates one of world’s worst cases of air pollution in Mongolia, particularly in Ulaanbaatar
Environmental pollution — from filthy air to contaminated water — is killing more people every year than all war and violence in the world. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
One out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about 9 million — could be attributed to disease from toxic exposure, according to a major study released in October this year in The Lancet medical journal.
The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2 percent of the global economy.
Mongolia’s plight is the same as elsewhere in the world, but the country as such had never gone through the wars and violence that many countries in the world are going through.
Outdoor air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, especially in winter, is a serious problem of growing concern among the residents of Mongolia’s capital.
World Health Organization (WHO) statistics rate the city as one of the most polluted cities with highest air pollution levels.
Annual average concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are over seven times higher than the WHO guidelines established to minimize morbidity and mortality risk.
Why air pollution, and also soil and water contamination levels in the city are considerably higher than in other large towns and settlements?
A number of reasons are attributed to this state of affairs (see image “Sources of air pollution in Mongolia”).
Inland migration in the country has been particularly robust since the country’s transition to “free” and “democratic” system.
Especially migration from the rural areas, from across the country, into Ulaanbaatar has been continuing and increasing, adding not only to the already saturated population of the city but also adding to the woes of traffic jams, unemployment, rising crime rate, and last but not the least, increasing at an alarming rate the level of air pollution in the city.
At least 30 thousand rural population have been migrating to Ulaanbaatar in the previous years.
This Ulaanbaatar-bound migration was put on hold by S. Batbold, the city’s Mayor and Governor.
According to Ulaanbaatar city Mayor, “This year only 7,800 rural people have moved to Ulaanbaatar after the decision imposing moratorium on Ulaanbaatar-bound migration was taken.”
This tree-time drop in the number of rural people moving into and settling in the capital city means that there are now less that many chimneys.
Major contributors to growing air pollution
The city has a sprawling ger-district and the inhabitants here neither have access to running water resources, proper sewage is completely non-existent, but they certainly have access to electrical power.
Given non-access to clean centrally-supplied water, families have to bring water for food and household purposes from wells. Since fetching water is traditionally a child’s job in this country, this maximizes children’s contact with the polluted air, which also contaminates the water resources that families use.
Most of the residents of the ger-districts are struggling to make a living and for firing their stoves for heating and cooking, they would burn anything that they can burn, including rubber tires and plastic bags, throwing toxic gases into the outdoor air. There are more than 198 thousand households in Ulaanbaatar ger-districts.
Also, an equally major contributor to air pollution in the city are the more than 350,000 vehicles and their number is growing from year-to-year. Almost 70 percent of imported second-hand vehicles are 10 and more years old. All this contribute to considerably increase the level of toxic gases in the outdoor air.
Dr. Altangerel Enkhjargal, an epidemiologist notes, “Air quality of Ulaanbaatar in 2014, as measured by particulate matters (PM2.5), was 64 μg/m3 (2.6 times higher than the permissible level of the Mongolian air quality standard). The average PM2.5 concentration from October 2013 to April 2014 was lower by 27 μg/m3 (21 %) than the concentration measured from October 2012 to April 2013. During 2011–2014, the highest concentration of PM2.5 was during the coldest periods. The PM2.5 level was relatively high during cold periods because of high household (indoor) burning of raw coal during cold temperatures.”
The central Government and the City Municipality have and continue to allocate astronomical sums of money for programs to combat air pollution.
This winter, the Ulaanbaatar City Municipality’s budget to “combat air pollution” is MNT3.8 billion (1US$ = MNT2440 app.) In 2016, the country had spent MNT5.5 billion for fighting air pollution (from 2011-2015 the country had spent a total of MNT132.5 billion for this purpose). Despite huge budget allocations, including millions of soft loans, grant aid and technical assistance also from foreign and international organizations, the situation has not changed, leave alone improving.
The health burden of air pollution is alarmingly high.
“The most common air pollutants impact human body in four different ways,” according to Dr. Ts. Tsogtbaatar, the CEO of the National Public Health Center under the Ministry of Health. “These pollutants damage the respiratory systems, heart and blood vessels, immunization and the nervous system. Roughly 20 percent of all cardiovascular diseases and 40 percent of lung cancer are attributable to air pollution.”
According to Dr. Tsogtbaatar, a study carried out last year revealed that 9-13 percent of all the deaths in the city of Ulaanbaatar were caused by filthy and polluted air.
A World Bank survey, carried out a while ago in 2009, showed that PM2.5 and PM10 in the ambient air of Ulaanbaatar had a constant and strong correlation with hospital admissions for CVD. (PM – particulate matter. PM10 pollution consists of very small liquid and solid particles floating in the air. PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair.)
In 2011–2014 in Ulaanbaatar, as per an early survey, on the first day of exposure, 2.7 percent of hospitalizations for cardiovascular disease was due to PM2.5; on the second day, 2.2 percent; on the third day of exposure, the rate of hospital admissions increased by 2.8 percent, and on the fourth day, CVD- caused hospitalizations were 2.1 percent.
Many studies verify that cardio-vascular diseases are caused by air pollution. Resultatively, this is a burden on the government’s budget, which otherwise could be put to better use for the benefit of the country and the people.
According to the World Bank, if the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar was reduced by 50 percent, the country would save $19 million to $38 million in healthcare costs.
State and government leaders, as all level, recognize the gravity of the problem and have done so in the past, but with minimal positive result.
In 2017, the previous Prime Minister of the country set up a National Committee on Reducing Environment Pollution. The committee members included the Environment Minister, members of the Parliamentary sub-committee on reducing air pollution, the Ulaanbaatar city Governor, Vice Ministers and also a broad spectrum of civil society organizations. The committee was formed pursuant to a National Program on Reducing Air and Environment Pollution, which was adopted based on recommendations by the National Security Council.
The national program has an ambitious goal of reducing by at lest 80 percent air and environment pollution in the next 8 years or by the year 2005.
Is this feasible, one may ask?
Feasible provide there is a joint effort and the political will to tackle the problem.
This year recently in October, President Battulag called a National Forum on Reducing Air Pollution, which adopted recommendations towards this end. They call for concerted efforts towards streamlining the legal environment of air pollution reduction; immediate actions for reducing air pollution in Ulaanbaatar; building of modern apartment houses in the ger-districts through re-planning; and, reducing concentration in the capital city.
Apart from this and also prior to all this, different interventions have been made and tried, some successful, while some others without any tangible result. They included the supply of households in the ger districts with coking coal; more than 700 households were distributed the so-called “new type of insulators for the ger”; so-called “smokeless” chimneys were introduced; and, encouraging the use of LPG.
One, perhaps, successful intervention may be the introduction of discounted night rate for electricity across the country, but the monetary burden on the state is quite high especially now when the economy is going through doldrums.
This initiative was introduced in 2015.
“All residents in the ger-districts of Ulaanbaatar would benefit from late-evening and night electricity rate effective from 1 November to 1 April, the next year,” according to B. Bolor-Erdene, Chief of Price and Tariff Section at the Energy Regulatory Committee.
According to him all the gers in administrative centers of aimags, with a population of more than 10,000 and soums as well as other settlements can benefit from this flat zero-rate on electricity charges from 9 pm in the evening to 6 am in the morning, during which time the stove is kept burning to keep the ger warm. This is an effort to encourage ger-residents to go for electrical heaters.
For this purpose, at least in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the Government plans to build electrical sub-stations in all the districts of the city. So far, the Government has Built 63 new electrical substations in 6 districts of the city and 6,363 new consumers are being supplied power.
This is also going to help, in particular, low-income households in the ger-areas as the money saved can be used for the betterment of their livelihood, as a lead international environmentalist had indicated that there is a close relationship between pollution and poverty.
He had said “And controlling pollution would help us address many other problems, from climate change to malnutrition. The linkages can’t be ignored.”