My one visit to Ulaanbaatar was in 1984, so I have outdated perspective, but I do recall the haze. I did not know it was from coal, associating it more with the Soviet gloom that I grew up believing was a permanent shadow on those lands. The military guards patrolling the train station were ominous at first sight. And one of them walked up to my buddy, grabbed his camera and ripped the film out of it. Yikes. No photo ops for us. But when our train, the Trans-Siberian, left the station I saw that Mongolia is one of the most blessedly beautiful landscapes I had seen, or have seen since. Multiple rainbows alway on the horizon. Thanks to Katya Cengel and NPR for this reminder that the sun is always shining somewhere in Mongolia:
It takes the taxi driver three tries to find the neighborhood and at least another three wrong turns on narrow unpaved roads before he locates the company’s front gate. Each time he gets turned around the driver reaches for a cell phone. On the other end of the line Odgerel Gamsukh directs the driver to Gamsukh’s garage door business. Neither man seems bothered by the multiple interruptions and resulting delay. Mongolians are used to it taking a little extra time to get around, especially in the ger areas of Ulaanbaatar.
If street addresses mean little in the city center, where residents commonly give directions based on landmarks instead of street names, they mean even less in the surrounding ger areas, named for the circular felt tents in which many residents live. In these neighborhoods, the route that takes you from one place to another is sometimes a grass-covered hill. That is because the government has yet to catch up with the city’s rapid growth. Sixty years ago only 14 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, the country’s largest city. Today it is approximately 45 percent, more than one million people. The majority of them, 60 percent, live in ger areas that often lack basic services such as sewer systems, running water and trash collection. The coal that area residents burn to warm their homes is the main cause of winter air pollution that now rivals Beijing’s.
It is out of this unplanned and polluted sprawl that Gamsukh is determined to create a green community. If that sounds difficult, his next goal – honoring Mongolia’s nomadic past while at the same time creating a sedentary community – seems almost impossible. Yet that hasn’t stopped the 34-year-old power plant manager turned architect, just like he didn’t let the frozen ground stop him from attempting to install underground pipes last winter.
It did slow him down, just as a lack of funding slowed construction of his company’s environmentally friendly office and warehouse. It is Gamsukh’s doggedness that others working in the ger areas admire, including Badruun Gardi, whose non-profit social enterprise, GerHub, is also focused on making individual gers and ger neighborhoods more eco-friendly.
Gardi is not an engineer or an architect or even an entrepreneur like Gamsukh. He studied cultural psychology. Like Gamsukh, he is in his 30s and is working in the same district, Songino Khairkhan. He was drawn to the ger areas because of the extreme pollution and a need for a solution. Gamsukh grew up in the ger area where he built the company office and remembers how empty it used to be, a natural playground where he could catch grasshoppers. In time more and more immigrants came, each claiming a little more of the land for their families until the open area was divided into small plots of land marked by large fences. Under Mongolian law, every Mongolian is entitled to a free plot of land, making it hard for the government to control growth.
Blame The Mountains, The Valley — And Coal
In December 2016, Ulaanbaatar experienced pollution levels five times higher than in Beijing, sparking a public outcry. Despite a new national program aimed at reducing air pollution, the situation has not markedly improved. Heavy coal burning combined with unfortunate geography – a valley surrounded by mountains – have helped the city become one of the world’s most heavily polluted. According to a 2011 study published in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health by Ryan Allen, an assistant environmental health professor with Canada’s Simon Fraser University, one in ten deaths in the capital can be attributed to air pollution.
Those most affected are children whose immune systems and lungs are not fully developed. Fine particulate matter — PM 2.5 — increases the risk of respiratory infection in children. In Ulaanbaatar PM 2.5 is usually six to seven times the World Health Organization allowance, but can be as much as 25 times higher. One of the leading causes of death for children under 5 here is acute lower respiratory infection, accounting for 15 percent of under 5 childhood mortality cases under age 5.
On January 30, PM 2.5 levels of 3,320 micrograms per cubic meter were reported in the capital, 133 times above WHO recommendations, according to UNICEF Mongolia. A joint report by UNICEF and the Mongolian National Center for Public Health titled “Mongolia’s air pollution crisis: A call to action to protect children’s health” warns that the financial cost of treating air pollution related diseases in children will increase by 33 percent by 2025 if levels do not decrease.
Gardi does not have biological children of his own, but he worries about his two young nieces. “It’s so heartbreaking to see” the physical effects of air pollution on children, he says. “So I think everyone has to be trying to do something.”
“He’s also kind of trying to inspire people,” says Gardi. “To show what the possibilities are.”…
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