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Kids suffer most in one of Earth’s most polluted cities

16 · Dec · 2019
Image Credit: Regis Defurneaux for Breathe Mongolia 

For many Mongolians, coal is essential to surviving the winter—but it comes at a terrible price. During the winter months, air pollution levels in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar routinely reach dozens of times the recommended limit. Respiratory issues such as pneumonia and bronchitis are widespread and hospitals are overcrowded with children at the highest risk of harm.

A combination of environmental and economic factors contribute to Ulaanbaatar’s pollution problem. Foreign direct investment in coal and other mined resources has brought wealth on the one hand, but pollution-spewing power plants on the other. And mining depletes fields by using up groundwater, complicating life for nomadic herders already losing livestock to increasingly harsh winters. When the herding lifestyle becomes unsustainable for families, they search for new opportunities in the capital, where they continue to live in gers (traditional tent homes) and burn coal to stay warm.

Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts are both major contributors to air pollution and its worst victims. One study found that children in the ger district had 40% less lung capacity than children in the Mongolian countryside. Alex Heikens, UNICEF’s Mongolia representative, believes the air pollution “is more than a public health crisis…even if we would stop the pollution now, we go down to zero today, many of these problems are already built into the health of the population” and will hinder productivity and health in the long term.

This winter, local government has taken desperate action. Ulaanbaatar’s schools were closed for two months in an attempt to shield children from the toxic air, and a temporary ban was enacted to prevent migrants settling in the city unless they can afford to buy or rent a home. The government is also planning a shift to higher-grade coal starting in May. However, many remain dissatisfied with the official response to the crisis. Sukhgerel Dugersuren, chair of a mining oversight group called Oyu Tolgoi Watch, says it’s long past time for Mongolia to move towards cleaner forms of energy, but in government, “There is reluctance to take on new things, or maybe just no capacity.” She fears “the way the planning is going, there’s going to be more power plants. There’s going to be more coal burned here.”

Read the original: Kids suffer most in one of Earth’s most polluted cities.

Published on March 26, 2019 on National Geographic

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