The Green Zone Cafe in downtown Ulaanbaatar is an oasis of greenery in a rapidly growing city whose concrete and prefab buildings harken back to its Soviet beginnings. But for patrons, it’s not just an escape from the development that’s consuming all the green space; it’s also a place to breathe fresh, clean oxygen.
Mongolia’s capital experiences some of the worst air pollution in the world. Mongolians are still waiting on the promises of wealth and development from the rapid economic growth since 2010; instead they are suffering lung and heart disease as winter air-quality levels typically fall 70 times below the recommended levels of the World Health Organization, which ranks Ulaanbaatar as one of the top 10 world cities with the worst air quality.
“Air pollution is a big issue, but we can’t do anything because our government is only just talking about the air pollution problem,” says Adiya Otgonbyamba, a 25-year-old waitress at Green Zone, who slogs through the smog each morning, six days a week. “We can’t see the clear sky because of the smoke during winter.”
Green Zone is one of the many new businesses that have sprung up near Ulaanbaatar’s business district to cater to the growing middle class and adventurous investors who are still betting on the country’s future, despite a deflated market for the mineral resources that made it an investor darling three years ago. Green Zone is run by Jessie Itofo of France, who swears that after five years, “I can’t believe the pollution isn’t getting any better.”
The economic slowdown in China, Mongolia’s main trading partner, and investors leery of investing in new mining projects has made it all the more difficult for the Ulaanbaatar authorities to tackle expensive social problems such as air pollution.
The toxic air enveloping Ulaanbaatar is a result of the smoke from coal-fired power plants, car exhausts as well as ash from the coal being burnt by the tens of thousands of yurts that cover the outskirts of the city. Various studies have shown that during the harsh winters, when temperatures routinely dip below -30°Celsius, children and the elderly are most vulnerable, in addition to pregnant mothers and their unborn children.
One health effect of the airborne pollution, pneumonia, was the cause of 29% of all deaths for children under five years old in 2013 nationwide; about half of Mongolia’s population live in Ulaanbaatar, where the smog is worst, according to a study from the London School of Hygiene and Topical Medicine. About 80% of those deaths occurred during the harsh winters when residents burn about three tonnes of coal a year, according to a study from the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. According to Byambaa Tsogtbaatar, director of Mongolia’s Public Health Institute, air pollution contributed to 9.2% of all deaths in Ulaanbaatar.
About 80% of the air pollution in Mongolia comes from the shantytowns, called ger districts by locals after the traditional round, white-felt yurts used there as homes. These trash-filled neighbourhoods along dirt roads house more than half of the capital’s 1.6mn residents and are in stark contrast to the modern urban centre. Simple and easy to move, the gers have served well the nomads who have followed their herds for more than a thousand years. Today, however, sedentary ger dwellers in Ulaanbaatar are cut off from the heat and water utilities that serve the modern apartment blocks in the city.
Rufus Edwards, an associate professor for public health at University of California Irvine, has overseen a 30% reduction in smoke from such districts since 2012. It’s the achievement of a programme financed by the US Millennium Challenge Corporation that has brought newer, cleaner-burning stoves to replace traditional ones.
But as the city’s employment and education opportunities continue to draw in thousands of migrants from the countryside, he says that without drastic action the problem will only get worse in coming decades. “What’s going to be an even bigger concern is when adolescents now reach 50,” he says. “You’re going to have a lot more respiratory disease in the adult population.”
For many in the city, the “airpocolypse” is an example of the social disparity that has grown alongside the economy, because it’s the ger districts, where the city’s lowest earners live, that are suffering the worst. It costs about $25 a month to lease the spot that a ger sits on, while a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for about $350 a month.
Ulaanbaatar hopes to expel the pollution from the coal burned there by moving ger dwellers into affordable housing complexes that have access to the city’s heating utilities. But for many, connecting the standalone homes to heating lines would be a better option. “The long-term solution and the aspirational goal of everyone in the ger district is to move into a house, or build their own house,” says Edwards.
But while construction companies are held to standards for the apartment blocks being built, Edwards worries that the many self-made homes will go unchecked. “It’s basically what you and your neighbour know, and what people in the neighbourhood are doing,” says Edwards about home construction in the ger districts. “You don’t have inspectors, a code or recommendations of what building materials are used.”
Back in the city centre, Otgonbyamba is pouring a fresh latte at Green Zone for a customer welcome to get out of the evening cold and breathe some fresh air. “Every year the winter is so cold, and so I think more people are moving to the city from the countryside,” she sighs.