Sunday, February 26, 2017

Air Pollution in Mongolia

             Chinggis has relatively clean air during the winter. We live in a large valley near a river, so if the winter air is moving even a little, then most of the small city’s pollution is blown away. Still there are nights when the temperature drops drastically, and the air just doesn’t move. The hot air doesn’t really rise because it is quickly cooled.  During these nights, to walk through town is to navigate a smoggy haze of coal dust and particulate. Every breath is a taste of coal and your clothes become saturated with the scent. During certain cold nights of the winter, Chinggis City has air pollution levels that are worse than anywhere in the US.  The air next to a bonfire is probably healthier, but Chinggis has nothing compared to Ulaanbaatar.

           UB is a city that was designed to support a quarter million, but now houses 1.5 million people. Winter in Mongolia is deadly, so to escape the cold in the coldest capital in the world, many inhabitants use coal or wood burning fires. The smoke from these ger fires, coupled with cars and power plant emissions, has led to an environment where the particulate level during the winter can be as high as 80 times the World Health Organizations recommended levels.  In December, an article from Bloomberg said that UB’s air pollution was 5 times higher than Beijing.

            The effects of this environment on personal health can be devastating. Children are especially at risk of developing pneumonia and chronic respiratory diseases.  Walking through the capital during the winter is sometimes like walking through a Hollywood depiction of a war zone. Smoke is everywhere. It doesn’t rise or leave, it just hovers in the air seeping into lungs, clothing, hair, and even under fingernails. The scent of the city never is entirely gone, even in the most ventilated apartments.

            Mongolians living in UB recognize this seasonal pollution issue, and this winter, there were a number of demonstrations and protests by the people of UB for cleaner air. The government in Mongolia is trying to start a number of initiatives to curb the pollution.  A 2014 study on air pollution in UB listed over 20 different ways that regulation of power plant emissions and ger fires could lower the pollution levels. For years the country has been pushing people in cities to live in apartment buildings rather than gers, but the country has a long way to go before this problem is eradicated. For now the harsh reality of winter in Mongolia is not just the cold, but also the pollution.
Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

            It’s about to get real y’all. As a PCV living in Mongolia, I cannot for the life of me understand why my own country has trouble recognizing the importance of environmental protection and initiatives. We, Americans, live in a country that owes our clean air to laws like the Clean Air Act of 1970. For almost 50 years, we have lived with clean air and the expectation is that we will continue to do so, but I don’t think most of us fully understand what these laws do to improve our way of life. I certainly didn’t. Until I lived in Mongolia, I took clean air as a given, but now I realize that with rises in the world population any pollution free environment is no longer a natural state. Rather, it is a state brought about by hard work on the part of the people living in that area to improve the environment.  If we don’t make an effort to curb pollution in everything we do, then our natural environment will shift to its new natural state: a state of hazy air, polluted waters, and littered grounds. What we consider “natural” is not something that can be achieved without combined efforts to make it so.

I am optimistic for our environment. I am optimistic about Mongolia’s pollution. The people of Mongolia recognize this is a problem and are working to fix it. In 10 or 20 years the pollution of UB may be a thing of the past, but taking care of something you can see and walk through is easy. My hope is that, as developing nations clean up the pollution that is affecting their populations, countries like the US can pave the way in tackling problems of pollution that are not so obvious in areas of clean energy, waste disposal, and environmental protection. I recognize that to many my hopes may seem na├»ve, but what is life without optimism. 

            So I hope that you will join me in this effort to think about an environmental consciousness. I encourage you, the next time you step outside and take a deep breath of fresh air, to recognize that this natural state is the accumulation of a lot of hard work, that the air you breathe is clean because people a half century ago didn’t like the haze that was settling over our cities and dreamed of something better.



Amarsaikhan, D. et al. (2014). A Study on Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar City, Mongolia. Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection, 2, 123-128. Retrieved From:

Kohn, Micheal. World’s Worst Air Has Mongolians Seeing Red, Planning Action. (2016, December 23) Retrieved from:

No comments:

Post a Comment