UB: How long before levels of air pollution be acceptable?

Starting from this edition, The Mongolian Economy is going to run a new column titled Opinions. This column will be led by recognized Mongolian and foreign experts from all sectors of society. The first to lead the Opinions column for this edition is Ts. Tumentsogt, an infrastructure expert.

Ulaanbaatar city is the coldest capital city in the world and is the most polluted in terms of air quality. Though the levels of other pollutants already exceed national and international standards, the levels of particulate matters (PM) are of major concern. For non-experts, the particulate matter (PM) is harmful to human health. Fine dust particles cause various health diseases, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and shortens life expectancy. Recent measurements show that annual concentrations of PM in Ulaanbaatar exceed 6- 20 times Mongolian National Air Quality standards, which are already higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) standards. According to international experts, health costs associated with this level of air pollution represent 12% of Mongolia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and about 27% of Ulaanbaatar’s GDP. In recent years, hospital admittance due to increased respiratory diseases shot up dramatically.  These numbers are astonishing and it really undermines Ulaanbaatar’s livability. It’s clear that there is no time for complacency and there is urgent need for coordinated actions from the Government, private sector, partners and citizens. Learning from experiences of other countries as well as educating households is also important.  

The sources of air pollution vary from emissions from households’ stoves, heat only boilers, power plants, unpaved roads, waste, lack of greening as well as weak urban planning and enforcement, and chaotic settlements adds to this problem. Thousands of households are migrating to Ulaanbaatar every year and this trend will continue unless a strong urban planning is enforced.
Coordinated efforts to tackle air pollution started in 2007. Since then the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy, UB city Government in cooperation with responsible agencies did an excellent job in terms of establishing air quality baseline, air pollution causes and possible actions and their impacts. There is no silver bullet action which will solve the issue and all possible measures needs to be deployed. 

There are different possible actions with different timelines and costs. Although it’s desirable to get rid of air pollution as soon as possible, it is a necessary to take into account funding availability, time required for implementation and households’ income. The situation is such that all possible measures to address air pollution should be deployed. Short term actions include  the promotion of cleaner stoves, improvement of insulations of gers and homes in ger districts and switching to cleaner fuels. These measures can be implemented in two to three years. The World Bank estimated that providing heating in ger areas will improve air quality by about 50%.  In the meantime, the Government and Ulaanbaatar City should focus on medium and long term measures which include the expansion of infrastructure services and the creation of incentives for private sector developers to build low cost and affordable houses and buildings. Though housing programs may take years to implement due to the low incomes of ger districts residents, improving livability of the city shouldn’t be abandoned.