16 · Dec · 2019
During the winter months in overpopulated Ulaanbaatar, air pollution can reach dozens or even hundreds of times the level considered hazardous. PM 2.5 particles enter children’s bodies through their nose and mouth, disrupting the normal functioning of every organ in the body. “We’re not talking here of asthma incidence; we’re talking about very severe, very negative conditions for life,” says Fernando Martinez, director of the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center at the University of Arizona. “Those are absolutely unacceptable levels… a real, serious threat to health” which “affect[s] the global ways in which the child grows, and this has consequences up to late in adult life.” Even unborn children are impacted; a 2014 study showed that, between winter and summer 2011, rates of fetal deaths in Ulaanbaatar increased 3.6 times.
Ulaanbaatar’s pollution crisis derives from a combination of factors. Mass dieoffs of livestock caused by increasingly severe winters contribute to an exodus of rural people to the city, where they burn coal to keep warm during the brutal winters. And the unique geographic position of the city results in temperature inversion, where pockets of cold air lay stagnant and keep pollution trapped. Economic opportunities are limited outside Ulaanbaatar, forcing many families to choose financial security over health. While those who can afford to purchase filters and masks or leave the city altogether, many others have no option but to expose themselves to the pollution, which is also putting a strain on Mongolia’s healthcare system.
Experts say what’s needed in Mongolia is a fundamental change in the city’s infrastructure and in the country’s reliance on dirty sources of energy. So far the government has promised a variety of steps to curb pollution ranging from planting more trees to banning unrefined coal and temporarily banning internal migration to Ulaanbaatar. Alex Heikens, UNICEF’s representative in Mongolia, is “not yet convinced about the set of interventions that is proposed and the budget that is available…You cannot only look at reducing air pollution because that will take … years. And in the meantime you have to do whatever you can to protect the health of your people.” For Heikens, “the only long-term solution is clean energy.” International organizations are investing in longer-term, infrastructure-oriented projects to tackle the pollution issue. For example, UNICEF has been piloting a design and innovation project with international and local partners to build more sustainable and energy-efficient gers.
Read the original at: Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is the future of our cities.
Originally published on March 10, 2019 on Quartz
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