Living in the Smog: Life in Ulaanbaatar, The World’s Most Polluted Capital

If asked to imagine Mongolia, you might think of Genghis Khan and his mighty Mongol hordes galloping across the Central Asian steppes, or you might think of rural yurts and large herds of horses and cattle. What you most likely would not think of is an urban city filled with smog that contains 45% of the nation’s population. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is currently considered to be one of the world’s most polluted capitals. With a population of over 1.5 million, many residents live in poverty, and in the world’s coldest capital, when winter comes at under 40 degrees both Fahrenheit and Celsius, people will do whatever it takes to get warm.

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Why have all these people moved from the countryside into the city?  There is a simple answer to this: climate change. In the past 70 years, the average temperature in Mongolia has risen by 2.07 degrees, far greater than the global average of .85. This has led to the emergence horrible “dzuds” in the countryside. Dzuds are harsh winters followed by unbearably hot summers, that have become increasingly worse due to climate change, and that have killed 700,000 animals in the last winter. This has caused the massive migration from the grasslands into the city. With a lack of infrastructure to handle this influx of people, slums of yurts on the edge of the city, or gers, have surrounded Ulaanbaatar.  According to one source, 60% of the city’s population of 1.5 million live in the gers. Without access to electricity or other resources, during the harsh winters the people of the gers are forced to burn whatever they can find to stay warm, making the slums more polluted than those of Delhi.

This pollution is making this already unlivable situation even worse. Currently the level of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is 133 times worse than the World Health Organizations safe level. These levels are detrimental to all people, but are severely worse for children. Children in Mongolia are currently suffering from ailments such as cancer, rickets, behavioral problems, low birth rate, constant infection, influenza, bronchitis, and a plethora of other ailments due to the high levels of air pollution. Some parents have decided to keep their children inside during the winter months to keep them safe from pollution, and the Ulaanbaatar school board has made winter breaks longer to help with this. Unfortunately, this leads to other problems such as Vitamin D deficiency. One study found that children in ger districts had a lung capacity that was 40% smaller than kids who lived in the countryside, which presents future developmental problems. Some doctors claimed they have not heard a healthy set of lungs in years. But what can be done, and why has there been no change?


In a country that has suffered from institutional corruption, many politicians focus on their own interests instead of trying to find a solution for the pollution that is only getting thicker.  Since Mongolia is rich in natural resources including coal, it is economically beneficial for those in power to keep using coal even as it destroys the health of their citizens. Many are ready for change, and view Mongolia’s parliamentary speaker, Enkhbold Myegombo, as a symbol of the countries corruption. This has led to a variety of protests against Myegombo demanding action.  Some critics believe that change may soon be on the horizon.

“Air pollution is…a violation of children’s rights,” explains Alex Heikens, UNICEF’s representative in Mongolia, and “the only long-term solution is clean energy,”. Some steps are being made in that direction. Starting in May 2019, Ulaanbaatar will ban the use of unrefined coal and subsidize electricity for poor households in the ger districts. Many, however, are skeptical, due to the money being made by coal, and the lack of infrastructure connecting the ger to electricity. Ulaanbaatar has also banned internal migration to the capital until 2020 to deal with issues of overpopulation in the city, but many believe that will not be enforced as well. However, international aid organizations such as UNICEF have made it known that they will be investing in Ulaanbaatar’s infrastrastructure projects and piloting new projects to bring sustainability and infrastructure to the gers.  

Climate change and air pollution are an issue all over the world. In the developing world 98% of children are affected by the harmful effects of air pollution. Ulaanbaatar is a striking example of these problems. What will become of us in a world where children can not even go outside for fear of dying from simply breathing? It is up to us as a global community to make clean air a human right, because until we do so our children will suffer.

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