Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Poisonous Air in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

If you live in Ulaanbaatar, take a whiff. Do you smell that? The smell of winter – the smoke that chokes your throat and hurts your nasal cavity. “Winter is coming,” – literally.

Full article from UB Post, October 8th, 2013

Mongolia’s winter is one of the deadliest in the world. The smoke and fumes caused by ger district residents burning raw coal in century-old stoves, fuming cars, and power plants struggling to keep heating and energy in place, are responsible for one in ten deaths in Ulaanbaatar, according to a study conducted by Simon Fraser University’s Ryan Allen in 2011.

“Ulaanbaatar hasn’t received as much attention as some of Asia’s mega-cities, but the air pollution there is as bad as anywhere in the world,” says Allen, an assistant environmental health professor with Canada’s Simon Fraser University.  Ulaanbaatar’s “harmful dust” is six to seven times higher than the most lenient World Health Organization standards, making it one of the most polluted capital cities in the world today.

When breathing, the lungs of Ulaanbaatar citizens, especially those living in ger districts act like air filters, catching and storing the harmful dust which scientists call “particulate matter” (PM). PM smaller than 2.5 microns or “PM2.5” can cause severe respiratory illnesses.

“The environment’s impacts on health are often overlooked, but we found that one in 10 deaths in Ulaanbaatar can be attributed to air pollution. That far exceeds the number of deaths in the city caused by things that people may be more familiar with, such as traffic accidents.”

That was two years ago, and official statistical data says that around 15 thousand people move in to the steaming capital every year from provincial areas and foreign countries. But another study also showed that one in four people moving to Ulaanbaatar from rural areas change their addresses frequently, so the actual number of people moving into the capital city is probably much higher.

Why is this relevant? Because people moving from rural areas, more often than not, set up residence in the ger districts, which have no access to central heating, water and sanitation. Ger districts produce as much as 70 to 90 percent of the air pollution in the winter. There are many other contributing factors though, such as the number of cars on the streets, and Soviet era power plants still limping along to supply power to the capital.

So just how bad is Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution rate? A newly-published report by the World Bank presents findings on Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution and its impact on health.  Air pollution was monitored year round in Ulaanbaatar’s ger areas for the first time during the study. The calculated exposure of the population to PM2.5 was found to be, on average throughout the year, 10 times higher than Mongolian Air Quality Standards and six to seven times higher than the most lenient World Health Organization targets.

According to the World Bank report, Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution comes from many sources – dust from the desert, unpaved roads and open soil surfaces, lack of vegetation, ash and emissions from coal stoves, power plants, boilers, and vehicles… But coal and wood burning by the 175,000 households in ger areas, used for cooking and heating, contributes to the severity of air pollution in wintertime – summer air pollution is much lower than in winter.

Thankfully, the air pollution issue has been getting some attention from international organizations and the government alike. The government spends billions and billions of MNT to fight pollution by making “clean” stoves, supporting renewable energy, funding construction of “affordable” apartments (which backfired badly by increasing demands for construction material which resulted in even higher housing prices), and developing medical programs for respiratory diseases in infants and children, who are most vulnerable to poor air quality.

International organizations, including Millennium Challenge Corporation, Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, along with donor funds from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, UNDP/UNEP, the Netherlands, France, Korea as well as the World Bank, are working with the Mongolian government to find solutions to reduce pollution.

An immediate solution has never been found for this particular issue. Even as far back as the early ’90s, the air pollution rate was still a concern. It’s been more than 20 years, and yet the situation is getting worse every year. Air pollution is responsible for one in ten deaths in Ulaanbaatar. It is the worst killer in town, and it’s free to roam the city to find fresh victims. It kills slowly and painfully, and there’s little to protect against it, so long as you are in Ulaanbaatar. It’s a formidable foe working against the capital, and drastic measures are required to fight it off.

In the foreseeable future, this issue will remain. Until ger districts are gone, cars run on smokeless engines, and power plants are green, grab a gas mask and get ready for winter.

No comments: