The sky might be the brightest blue, but in the winter months, no one in Mongolia’s capital would be able to tell due to the persistent smog.
One of the most polluted capitals in the world, Ulaanbaatar is also densely populated – half of Mongolia’s three million people live here.
In winter, temperatures in the world’s coldest capital can plummet to minus 20 degrees and the only way for many people to keep warm is by burning raw coal.
In the worst case, pollutant levels reach 687 micrograms per cubic meter – 27 times the level recommended by the WHO as safe.
In 2018, UNICEF declared an air pollution crisis in the country.
The report warned: “Air pollution has become a health crisis for children in Ulaanbaatar.
“Risks include stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma and death, among others.
“There is also evidence that air pollution is associated with impairment of cognitive development, which occurs as early as pregnancy and a child’s early years. In addition, these children are at higher risk for chronic health problems later in life.”
In addition to thousands of homes relying on coal for heating, power plants are also burning coal and pumping carbon dioxide close to where some of the poorer communities live.
Young people we spoke to shared the effects of suffocating pollution on their health.
“If you go outside without a mask, your throat hurts and you cough,” says 15-year-old Egshglen.
“When I open the window to let air in, I smell smoke and get stressed because I’m not getting enough fresh air.
“You can’t get out in the fresh air without a mask. This is probably due to the factories being built too close to the ger districts, the fuel consumption and the number of cars.”
Anujin G, a 16-year-old student, wears a mask even in winter when she goes out because the smog is so bad.
“We first started wearing a smoke mask in 2017, and wearing it for hours on end caused shortness of breath, headaches and stress,” she says.
“To protect themselves from air pollution, my family checks their cars every year and uses filters. However, the effects are still there, such as skin rashes, headaches, and chest pains. White clothes and curtains used to be soot.”
Nomin, 16, adds: “We have a lot of young children in our house, so we use as many healthy things as possible, wear masks and have air conditioning in our houses.
“There’s a lot of smoke, and when you leave the house in the morning you have a sore throat and nausea, and when you go out at night it feels like you’re walking in a destroyed city.
“Recently, air quality has deteriorated and the impact has been so great that people cannot even sleep with the windows open and their skin dries out quickly.”
It got so bad that in 2019 the Mongolian government introduced a ban on burning raw coal, which is largely relied on by ger communities – people who live in traditional yurts on the outskirts of the city.
Instead, the government introduced refined coal briquettes, which officials say last longer and emit fewer fumes than raw coal, but are more expensive.
Poorer families have since resorted to other fuels to keep warm.
Air quality has improved since the ban, but young people we spoke to still reported breathing difficulties.
Anar, 16, says: “Because of the poor air quality we breathe, we suffer from increased headaches, nasal congestion, irritability, stress and mental instability.”
The outline of Ulaanbaatar used to be visible from a few kilometers away, but now it’s sometimes shrouded in black smoke.
“When we went to a ski resort about 5 km from Ulaanbaatar, the smoke and pollution above looked grayish and the city was visible under the smoke,” says 15-year-old Odjargal.
“But this year the view from the ski area was just completely blacked out and we thought the town was gone for a moment.”
Khash-Erdene, a 20-year-old college student, says poor air quality irritated her skin and caused acne.
“I get a lot of acne on my skin, which makes me lead an angry life,” she says.
Ulaanbaatar sits at the bottom of a valley, which means the pollutants in the air are trapped and remain low to the ground.
This, in addition to a growing population due to the number of people moving from the countryside to the city, means it’s a hotbed of air pollution.
But Ulaanbaatar’s young people are doing what they can to address poor air quality.
They make a positive contribution by parking cars and using public transport and above all by planting trees.
Founded in 2009, the Myclub eco-volunteer group has so far planted around 1.4 million trees in the countryside and the capital.
Young volunteers, usually between the ages of 14 and 18, sacrifice their Saturdays between April and October each year to plant trees.
Their vital work includes cleaning, preparing and planting fields of tree seedling and watering the trees planted the previous year when there is not enough rainfall.
MyClub also teaches many young people important ecology knowledge, thereby fulfilling its main goal of educating more young people to fight the climate crisis.
This alone won’t solve Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution problem, but the program, along with the state’s One Billion Trees by 2030 Plan, is a step in the right direction.
And the city’s young people hope that one day in the winter months, when they look up, they won’t see smog but a bright blue sky.
Raleigh International is a youth action organization that supports a global movement of young people to take action on the issues that matter to them.
Young people are at the forefront of building a fairer, more inclusive and greener world, and actively addressing the planet’s most pressing crises.
Action Not Excuses is Raleigh International’s global youth-led environmental campaign, empowering 100,000 young people to create green jobs, fight for zero waste and pollution, and reverse deforestation.
Action Not Excuses connects young people around the world to build the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable world and has supported young people in Nicaragua, Mongolia, Nepal, Tanzania, Malaysia, Costa Rica and the UK to run climate campaigns start taking urgent action For the environment.
Urban Nomads is the Action Not Excuses campaign led by young people in Mongolia to reduce the flow of migration from Mongolia’s rural areas to the cities. High migration rates are leading to rising air pollution and overpopulation in Mongolia’s capital, as well as underpopulation of young people in rural areas.
Through Urban Nomads, Mongolian youth are inspiring young people to see the potential of the resources they can access in their own rural hometowns to reduce migration and support the wider Mongolian environment.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/inside-one-worlds-most-polluted-26613603 In one of the world's most polluted cities - itchy skin, smog masks and black curtains - World News