Fifteen-year-old Erdenechimeg puts on her school uniform, a jumper and her snug parka, and sets off on her daily walk to school.
On this day, there are blue skies and clean air on the walk from her home to school in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; but in winter, when residents in traditional houses burn raw coal to ward against temperatures that regularly plummet to minus-30 degrees Celsius, the high school student cringes when she turns on her mobile phone flashlight to light her way.
“You can see the pollution dust floating in the air,” she said, “and since I don’t have a proper pollution mask, I just wrap my scarf really hard around my head.”
Erdenechimeg lives in the world’s coldest national capital, in a ger district, which takes its name from the round tents that nomadic settlers call home and bring with them when they move to the city.
In the cold morning and early evening hours, when the intensity of smog is usually the highest districts like hers, is precisely when thousands of children like Erdenechimeg walk to and from school.
She is one of the thousands of urban youths the Mongolian government hopes to engage as environmental champions with a number of intended roles, as part of its efforts as a member country of the BreatheLife campaign to reduce deaths from air pollution.
Erdenechimeg is also among 50 students from 25 schools in Bayanzurkh District who were trained to use air pollution monitors to measure and record air quality where they live and study and write blog articles about their experiences, which will contibute to the Voices of Youth Maps programme run by UNICEF.
The mapping project has been running for seven years now, giving young people around the world the platform to photograph, label and upload to a map the immediate environmental threats faced they face, from flood risks and other vulnerabilities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to environmental risks in Zimbabwe, the latter inspiring the Mongolia project.
Earlier this year, Erdenechimeg and her team of four mapped air pollution in their school rooms, finding that those running air purifiers recorded measurements of 42 to 46, whereas rooms without measured pollution higher than 80.
UNICEF hopes that the evidence from the air pollution digital mapping, along with the results of awareness-raising and advocacy activities (through which the agency reached 20,000 more schoolchildren), will motivate stakeholders to take action to reduce air pollution.
“Our aim was to not only raise awareness among young people about air pollution and its impact on their health, but most importantly to engage them in their early years as problem-solvers and change-makers. Being knowledgeable about the issue and passing on that knowledge to their friends, families and communities is already meaningful participation by young people,” said Ariunzaya Davaa, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Mongolia.
Those health impacts shot into the public — and international — consciousness at the end of January this year, when concentrations of airborne ultrafine particles (called PM2.5) reached 3,320 micrograms per cubic metre in the capital, 133 times above WHO recommendations, prompting the World Health Organization and UNICEF to release guidelines on reducing air pollution in Mongolia.
Government wants to recruit eco-champions and a launch Green Passport initiative
The state of Ulaanbaatar’s worsening winter air quality also prompted the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to launch to get middle and high school students to work towards solutions to environmental issues and boost the budding environmental innovation scene.
Mongolia’s Minister for Environment and Tourism, Mr Tserenbat Namsrai hopes the initiative would nurture young environmental champions who would take environmental best practices back to their communities and actively work to reduce pollution and other environmental issues.
The ultimate goal is for every family to have at least one youth champion in its home.
The main focus is to build on eco-clubs in urban schools, through which students will be recruited to participate in the National Green Passport Challenge, which revolves around completing 12 activities that include everything from recycling batteries to conserving water.
Activities for eco-club members and other students will revolve around four environmental themes: ecosystems and biodiversity, responsible consumption, environmental entrepreneurship and innovation, and healths impacts and protection.
The initiatives aim to arm students like Erdenechimeg with knowledge and scientific evidence of the realities and impacts of air pollution will help accelerate a change in mindset in a broader context, giving them the tools to take action, innovate, tell their stories and map a cleaner, more breathable, blue-sky future.