Last gasp for Mongolia
Updated: May 26
I gulp down my last few mouthfuls of Chinggis, one of Mongolia’s most popular beers, before saying my goodbyes and beginning the lengthy ritual of preparing to leave the bar.
Coat? Check. Hat? Check. Inner gloves and overgloves? Check. It’s –30C outside this evening, and the mercury could easily plummet by another 10 degrees.
I wrap my anti-pollution mask tightly over my nose and mouth, fastening the Velcro just above the nape of my neck. I check and double-check that it’s formed a proper seal.
As I approach the door to the outside world – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city – a few local punters look and laugh. Anti-pollution masks haven’t really caught on here, except among Westerners; some Mongolians feel they remind them of the Chinese, their former colonial rulers. Old prejudices die hard.
But my choice is vindicated the moment I step outside, into the all-enveloping smog. Thick, grey and heavy, it waltzes lazily around two figures no more than ten feet away from me. At first, I can’t make out who they are – but moving closer, I realise they’re two of my good friends: Steve, an Australian teacher, and Keith, an English writer. They’re lighting up cigarettes.
‘You know those things will kill you’, I remind them.
‘They’re probably better than breathing this air!’ quips Steve.
I laugh and walk away. That can’t be right, I think to myself, but I’m not entirely sure.
This scene is unlikely to be what most of us imagine when we think of Mongolia: the land of Chinggis Khan (Genghis, to you and me). What happened to people living in yurts, and herders, and horses galloping across the wide-open steppe?
Roughly the size of Western Europe, yet with a population of just three million, Mongolia is the world’s most sparsely populated independent country. For much of its existence, its inhabitants were pastoral nomads, herding animals in seasonal cycles between summer and winter grazing lands. But for the last couple of decades, things have been changing fast.
Trillions of dollars of minerals were discovered in the Gobi Desert at the turn of the millennium. Foreign companies piled in, and more and more mines sprang up – both legal and illegal operations. Some of them were later abandoned, leaving huge pockmarks on the land.
Not only has this stopped herders from accessing pastures they’d been using for centuries, but they also have to keep well away from the mines, lest their animals fall ill from water and soil pollution caused by the mercury and cyanide used to extract gold.
These changes are taking place in an environment that is already extremely fragile. In the countryside, summer temperatures can soar to 50C, plunging to –50C in winter, and average temperatures have risen over 2C since the 1940s – more than double the global average.
Mongolia also suffers from increasing desertification and a natural disaster called dzud – a summer drought followed by a harsh winter, which leads to a colossal number of animals starving or freezing to death.
In recent years, herders have experienced particularly devastating dzuds: from 1999 to 2002, 11 million animals died – more than the number of sheep in Wales – while from 2009 to 2010, the figure was 8.5 million. Unsurprisingly, the effect on the livelihoods of nomadic families has been catastrophic.
As herds dwindle and the traditional nomadic way of life becomes less and less viable, rural families increasingly look for a way out. Some turn to small-scale illegal mining, while many others migrate to urban centres.
Whereas almost two-thirds of Mongolia’s population lived in the countryside in 1960, under a third live there today – with almost half of all Mongolians living in Ulaanbaatar. But for those who make the move in search of a better life, reality is often far from expectation.
Most rural-to-urban migrants can’t afford city-centre apartments; instead, they reside in the surrounding ger districts. These are vast, sprawling and overcrowded slums, where people live in dilapidated shacks or yurts, known as gers – round felt structures with a central stove for cooking.
But in stark contrast to the freedom of the rolling steppe, here, the yurts are tightly packed and fenced in. Unemployment is over 60 per cent – almost triple that of other areas – and social problems are rife, including alcoholism and domestic violence. Sanitation and basic infrastructure are sorely lacking, and without central heating, its inhabitants burn cheap coal to heat their homes throughout the bitterly cold winters. If coal is beyond their budget, they use rubbish, plastic or tyres instead.
This, together with daily gridlock on the roads and smoke-spluttering, coal-fired power plants, means residents inhale dangerous levels of particulate matter: Mongolia’s silent killer. Tiny solid particles and liquid droplets made up of hundreds of different chemicals, including arsenic and mercury, floating through the air. You can literally taste it. Of more concern, these particles enter the bloodstream and organs of those who inhale them, causing heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory illnesses and death.
Like most of my colleagues at work, I’d religiously check the air quality online before leaving home or the office. Any reading over 150 for PM2.5 – smaller particles, which penetrate deeper into the lungs and are especially lethal – is deemed ‘unhealthy’ by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and over 300 is considered ‘hazardous’.
It wasn’t uncommon to see the numbers 999 on my laptop screen – a reading so high it was off the scale. On days like these, friends and colleagues, many of whose children had permanent coughs, agonised over whether or not to send them to school.
In 2016, my last year in Mongolia, over 3,000 people died from pollution-related diseases, and December saw pollution levels reach five times those in Beijing, exceeding the level deemed safe by the WHO by a factor of 80.
Of course, the poorest often bear the brunt of environmental damage. While I sat at my desk in UN House with industrial-level air purifiers and humidifiers on full blast, others laboured on the streets or in Soviet-era buildings, pollution creeping in through every crack and crevice and unsealed window.
These health and wealth divisions begin even before birth; experts have drawn ‘alarmingly strong’ correlations between seasonal pollution and the rate of miscarriages in Mongolia. Well-heeled Mongolians live in smart suburbs less affected by the smog. And on winter weekends in the surrounding countryside, SUVs line the car parks of hotels and restaurants, which welcome pregnant middle-class women stealing sips of fresh air.
So what’s being done about it? Not nearly enough. Schemes to replace older, more polluting stoves with cleaner ones and attempts to reduce traffic have had limited success. Despite public protests – and a particularly inventive campaign by activists of covering the faces of Ulaanbaatar’s many statues in masks – no lasting fix has been found, and the ger districts remain cut off from heating and basic infrastructure.
For the city’s residents, time is running out.