THE BLOG

Life in a Toxic City

What is it like living in Ulaanbaatar?

What is the word? Smoky. Let me start with that.

If reading this article as someone who has never experienced poor air quality, here is some simple imagery to help you understand: it feels like you are trapped in a small room with a big camp fire and no ventilation. Now imagine, this is for the duration of the 8-month heating season, as you are trapped in the room in the coldest capital in the world.

Ulaanbaatar today is ranked by the World Health Organization as one of the most polluted cities in the world. In short, the combination of the burning of coal by the city power plants and the residents that reside in the ger districts surrounding the city center are the major sources for the toxic air omnipresent during the winter months. The Ulaanbaatar population is roughly 1.3 million today according to a 2010 National Population Center census and an estimated 60% live in the ger district.

The ger districts, are residential zones where most families reside in Mongolian traditional felt tents or shoddy wooden buildings with for the large part, limited access to water, sanitation, and unreliable power. The district expanded exponentially as a transient living space when nomadic herders first began moving into the capital city, dramatically, after the transition of Mongolia to capitalism in the early 90's. Since then it has morphed into uncontrollable urban sprawl with no foreseeable solution in the short term.

In addition,the sheer number of cars which include both SUVS and old rickety imported passenger cars with poor emission (unofficial numbers estimate 300,000 in UB) sitting idle in traffic caused by the lack of proper roads contributes significantly to poor air quality. Clearly, keeping in mind that to travel 3 kilometers in downtown UB one might sit in traffic for up to an hour, Ulaanbaatar infrastructure is obviously not up to pace with economic growth. To give you an idea of how quickly the scene in Ulaanbaatar has changed, reflect on these numbers:according to the Mongolian traffic institute, there were 40,000 vehicles registered in Ulaanbaatar in 1991. In 2010, that number rose to 120,000. Today most estimates average as earlier mentioned, 300,000 vehicles both unregistered and registered.

The entrance of Mongolia into the global market, coupled by Mongolia's recent mining boom, more and more herder families come to Ulaanbaatar seeking the opportunities of capitalism. Recent, harsh winters conditions making nomadic life devastatingly difficult have also contributed to a large influx of nomadic migrants. For when a herder loses his animals, he loses his livelihood and most feel that after losing herd, the best opportunity lies in the city center as Mongolia itself has no manufacturing or industry beyond Ulaanbaatar. There are 19 "aimags" or provinces in Mongolia, and opportunity for employment is minimal.

I was fortunate to arrive to the city during the summer when the air pollution is minimal, however, this also gave me the chance to see and smell the decline in air quality intimately. By late September, I avoided walking when I could, and by October, I had become a proud owner of a sophisticated air filter mask. Nowadays, I don't leave the house without it, and even find myself wearing it when driving as well.

Thankfully, I was lucky to find a local salesperson, a graduate of Green River Community College located in Washington, USA, who took the initiative to contact the seller in Singapore to become the first local distributor of the so-called "Totobobo" mask last winter. People who wear air filter masks are a rare oddity and most local Mongolians opt for cloth masks. However, the change in attitude is visible, there are more businesspersons trying to capitalize on the need and with that said, one can find advertisements for air filter masks dotted sparsely around the city. I expect more health advocates to vouch for the effectiveness and necessity to wear a mask and to see more people adjusting to wearing them in the near future. The local Facebook page, Expats in Mongolia, had an interesting post a few weeks ago where one man was offering to deliver air filter masks for free from an American company for fellow expats as he was already having a shipment delivered to himself.

The trouble is air filter masks are expensive (generally around 40+ USD) not including the cost for replacement filters. An alternative are masks similiar to those used on construction sites, which cost around 3-4 USD available in certain stores. The people most likely to be found with the air filter masks are unsurprisingly expats and Mongolians educated abroad. Usually when asked about my mask the reactions vary from shock at how expensive the mask was and general doubt about its effectiveness. Contextualized, this makes sense; the minimum monthly wage requirement by law is 193,000 MNT or 130 USD.

Perhaps, the most frustrating and liberating aspect of living under a cloud of smoke is that, you can escape. Ulaanbaatar is the largest city in Mongolia, however, is a meager 1,816 sq miles. If one drives a few miles out of the city, into isolation albeit a few gers, the air is incredibly fresh. Those who have the means to leave the city during weekends and holidays seem to take every opportunity.

The government has taken initiatives to address the problem. Most notably, through a partnership with the World Bank on the "Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project", a 5 year project with a closing in 2017. The main objectives of the project are to provide access of more efficient heating appliances that produce less particulate matter emissions and to develop systems for continued measuring and evaluation of the air pollution of Ulaanbaatar. The project is projected to cost a total of 21.9 million USD, and 50% will be provided as a soft loan from the World Bank. The World Bank is not alone; many other international organizations have enlisted in the fight for better air quality including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Improving the air quality in Ulaanbaatar with short term solutions is a priority, as it means greatly reducing the daily suffering of breathing in toxic air and its health consequences which include and aren't limited to irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, worsening of existing lung and heart problems like asthma, and an increased risk of heart attack.

The medium and long term solutions will undoubtedly prove to be more complex. How and when the Mongolian government plans to solve the urban planning crisis of the Ulaanbaatar ger district remains to be seen. The crisis is multifaceted and requires a comprehensive outlook on improving education, lowering the unemployment rate, sustainable infrastructure of roads, power, heating and sewage, and the list goes on. However, it should be no surprise that the sooner the city can solve this problem, this developing city will be able to avoid astronomical health costs that shadow the toxic air being breathed in by young citizen population of Mongolia (68% of the total population is under the age of 35).

This blog post titled "What is it like living in Ulaanbaatar?" and might seem to have strayed off topic. However, for anyone living in this city, like the air pollution itself, these discussions become inescapable. Living in Ulaanbaatar is more than just air pollution, but for now, it is all I can think about. I am lucky to be able to afford the luxuries of air filter masks and air filters in my home; however, knowing that the majority of Ulaanbaatar citizens cannot is hard to cope with. The young children in these slums, who go to bed in smoky rooms, and wake up to hazy fog is devastating. I can only hope that those qualified and those capable of acting for change, act with courage and urgency. This city is killing its citizens, and that is no dramatization.