It’s midday, but the sky is dark, as if dusk has long fallen.
The winter air is thick and sooty, creeping into living areas, from thousands of heating stoves and hearths alit with smoky, bituminous coal— 350,000 tonnes of this cheapest and most readily available solid fuel— and a persistent smog blankets the streets.
The pollution here is a recognised health hazard, at 1,700 micrograms per cubic metre, seven times above pollution levels considered problematic by the World Health Organisation.
Activists distribute hundreds of free surgical masks, warning that people could die unless something was done, and fast.
Welcome to late-1980s Dublin, Ireland, before a 1990 government ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal within the city led to a 70 per cent decrease in black smoke by 2002, a 15.5 per cent decrease in respiratory deaths and 10.3 per cent fewer cardiovascular deaths.
Dr Sergey Diorditsa, the acting World Health Organization representative in Mongolia, recently cited the Irish experience as a good example to follow, when the WHO released a set of short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for the Government of Mongolia to tackle air pollution.
It’s an unexpected yet sympathetic comparison to modern-day Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where in winter, blue skies are a novelty and traditional households are heavily reliant on the burning of cheap, smoky coal in this coldest of world capitals, where winter temperatures routintely drop to 40 degrees Celsius below zero.
Air pollution causes more than 4,000 deaths every year in this Central Asian lower-middle income country with a population of 3 million, 45 per cent of whom live in the capital.
A recent Unicef report found that in the last 10 years, cases of respiratory infections have nearly tripled and pneumonia is now the second leading cause of death for children under five years old.
In the winter of 2017, the mean concentration of particulate matter in Ulaanbaatar was 8 to 14 times above WHO guidelines, despite government efforts starting in the 2000s that included replacing traditional stoves by low smoke-stoves, increasing energy sources, introducing new mode of public transportation service and running a campaign on reducing heat loss in traditional housing.
Concentrations of air pollutants fell between 2011 and 2015, but still remained 2 to 3 times higher than national guidelines.
Ban on transportation and use of raw coal in Ulaanbaatar by April 2019
In January 2018, Mongolia’s Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh announced a ban on the transportation and use of raw coal in the nation’s capital, starting in April 2019, as part of national plans to reduce air pollution by 80 per cent, prohibit the use of coal anywhere except for thermal power plants in Ulaanbaatar and cut air pollution in half by 2025.
The government has also offered families subsidies to switch to less-polluting stoves, and, since January 2017, provided free electricity at night to many of the highest-polluting districts in Ulaanbaatar (having introduced a night-time electricity discount for households in the Ger districts in 2016), despite, as a recent UNICEF report concluded, being resource-constrained.
“Air pollution has become one of the most challenging issues in Mongolia. WHO is pleased to see the Government’s efforts to identify comprehensive solutions to the air pollution situation in Ulaanbaatar, which will be vital for people’s health,” said WHO’s Dr Diorditsa.
But many homes in the ger districts, which house a large proportion of families who have moved from rural areas to the city to find work, cannot afford electric heaters, and unsubsidised electricity is more expensive than coal.
And many miners and sellers of coal from the Nalaikh area, from which comes the majority of coal used in the ger districts, are sceptical that the ban can be enforced.
“Eco horos” to lead by example
Tackling scepticism and showing the city’s residents that Ulaanbaatar can create a healthy, pollution-free city is one of the aims of a new project by non-governmental organisation Santé Sud and its partners.
They want to create an “eco-horo”— or “eco neighbourhood”— or two, to show what can be done when investments are made in a community in a coordinated way and with a “bottom-up” approach, through implementing existing solutions and developing new grassroots propositions.
“The idea of our project is to get many partners in a single neighbourhood to adress the issues in a way that people can get the whole picture and believe it is actually possible to act and change things, to make it visible,” said Charlotte Marchandise, consultant to the World Health Organisation and political chair to the WHO Healthy Cities French Network.
Crucial to behavioural change is the involvement of healthcare professionals, who will be armed with the best knowledge, methods, tools and techniques available to fight air pollution.
“They have a direct link with those most vulnerable to the negative impacts of air pollution, and are trusted advisors to the public and to policymakers on health issues,” Marchandise said, “thus, they can provide leadership in the search for solutions and empower others to create a healthier city.”
Search for solutions is ongoing, evolving
It’s a search with a long time horizon, but the benefits of finding solutions and taking action have been shown to pay off.
Eighteen years after the initial ban on the sale of smoky coal, in December 2017, as the Irish government announced the schedule for completing its rollout throughout the country by 2019, Ireland’s air quality is good, relative to other European Union member states.
A 2013 study in the Research Reports of the Health Effects Institute found that deaths from respiratory disease were reduced each time the Irish coal ban was extended to other communities, and these successive bans resulted in immediate and sustained drops in the concentrations of particulate pollution in their respective cities or towns.
The challenge is ongoing, however, and Ireland, like its EU counterparts, still looks for ways to maintain this standard as households burn solid fuel in the winter and the number of vehicles on the road grows.
As Mongolia steps up its action for better air quality in its growing capital city, it is hoped that its experience will guide and inspire other cities and yield a success story of its own.