Mongolia. The vast and mysterious expanse of land enclosed between China to the South and Russia to the North seems to have changed very little over thousands of years. A traveller visiting Mongolia will not be disappointed by the romantic expectations of the ‘land of the blue sky’; a country scattered by small pockets of nomads, herds of wild horses, and soaring golden eagles. Mongolia is, however, despite its beauty, plagued with what our local guide described as a ‘cancer’ - Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia’s sprawling and extremely polluted capital city.
Mongolia is the least densely populated country, yet Ulaanbaatar is the world’s most polluted city. Despite the idyllicism of the countryside, Mongolia’s generations old nomadic culture is increasingly diminishing as people flood to the cities in search of higher wages and a better quality of life. Yet Mongolia remains economically underdeveloped and a large proportion of its population resides below the poverty line. Wages remain poor in the city and living conditions are extremely poor. Most migrants moving into Ulaanbaatar are forced to live in gers - traditional nomadic tents - often on the outskirts of the city near industrial areas. When winter brings extreme temperatures (often below -40℃) many people are forced to burn unprocessed coal to stay warm. The pollution which is released is compounded by the surrounding mountains which trap the harmful air.
Ulaanbaatar’s topography, rising levels of migration, and continued reliance on dirty coal for 8 months of the year has caused Ulaanbaatar to become the world’s most polluted city. The effects of the pollution include an increased number of cases of respiratory diseases, complications during pregnancy, and food contamination. Furthermore, given that the effects of air pollution are usually felt more keenly by children, education levels and prospects for long term economic development is stunted as children are forced to miss school. What has resulted is a public health crisis in Mongolia and a worrying sign of the times for other industrialising cities across the world. Mongolia’s city dwellers are now faced with an impossible decision. Do they remain in the city where provisions such as education and healthcare are more widely available or move out into the countryside, protect their health, but pursue a much simpler way of life in which they are often completely isolated from the outside world?
I was surprised to discover during a visit to Mongolia in August 2019 (during which time I had the privilege of meeting a nomadic family in the heart of Central Mongolia’s Khangai Mountain Range), that many are opting to ‘return’ to a nomadic lifestyle similar to their ancestors’ way of life which has existed for thousands of years before. The family had lived in Ulaanbaatar for their whole life, but with the birth of a daughter and a very young son, they chose to escape the city and settle in Mongolia’s expansive wilderness. What they chose is a hard way of life, but one that they hope will provide a much improved standard of life for their children growing up. This experience reminded me of the importance of the experiences of individuals and families to give a vital human perspective on a type of issue which is often convoluted and dehumanised by statistics and figures.
A month before visiting Mongolia, I had the privilege to return to the US to spend 10 days at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I reconnected with the intern programme I was a participant of last summer and attended the annual day of presentations given by the interns on a UN issue they feel strongly about. Given the fact that I knew I was going to be visiting Mongolia just a few weeks later, I was particularly fascinated by a presentation given by a girl from Ulaanbaatar on her city’s air pollution problem. The intern, whose name is Tselmeg, believed that it was crucially important for Ulaanbaatar’s problem to be given more attention on the international stage, especially given how serious it has become. Tselmeg also made a powerful statement at Mongolia’s Voluntary National Review on her personal experiences living in Ulaanbaatar.
Though an extreme case, Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution problem is a troubling indication of the fate of many of our cities if fossil fuels continue to make up a large proportion of our energy resources. From an outsider’s perspective, the first reaction of many might be to condemn the burning of dirty fuels by many in the tented ger districts surrounding the capital, but it is not that simple. The poorest of the population are forced to rely on dirty fuels to stay warm, knowing full well the risk it poses to their health.
Solutions to this problem unfortunately cannot be focussed around education initiatives alone. A combination of vaccinations for children, high quality face masks, and green initiatives must be used together to control the symptoms of air pollution on the livelihoods of the population. Beyond this, the advancement of the SDGs more broadly must also be taken into account to lift people out of poverty, reduce Mongolia’s reliance on coal exports, and give Ulaanbaatar’s population greater access to a higher standard of healthcare.