A report issued by UNICEF in February 2018 in collaboration with Mongolia’s National Center for Public Health urged the Mongolian government to make greater efforts to combat pollution levels. The paper outlines the health consequences that children face in the country as a result of high pollution levels.
The country’s capital of Ulaanbaatar is the epicenter of the pollution crisis. According to the report, Ulaanbaatar surpassed Beijing and New Delhi as the capital in 2016 with the highest level of air pollution. High levels of pollution in Ulaanbaatar could result in grave health consequences for a large portion of the country’s population. Almost half of the country’s three million people live in the capital.
Pollution in Mongolia stems from the country’s transition from communism in the 1990s. Following the collapse of communism, Mongolia underwent a political and economic transformation which encouraged mass migration to urban areas. The new constitution, ratified in 1992, allowed for freedom of movement and residency anywhere within the country, which had been restricted under the communist regime. Harsh, volatile weather conditions in rural areas undermined subsistence farming, and as a result, Mongolians migrated to urban areas such as Ulaanbaatar. In general, cities had better living conditions, and people viewed them as offering more economic opportunities in an emerging market economy.
Over the next 25 years, net migration from rural to urban areas increased substantially. The government, however, was unable to plan for or accommodate much of this urbanization. As a result, new migrants in Ulaanbaatar established informal suburbs that are collectively known as the Ger districts. Ger is a term for round, portable housing structures traditionally used by nomadic herders that were composed of wooden frames with felt coverings. The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are referred to as the Ger districts because the housing structures were the most common type to be built. Currently, 61 percent of the population in Ulaanbaatar lives in the Ger districts. Rapid population growth in these areas has put substantial stress on the environment, with smoke from coal burning driving increases in air pollution.
The report emphasizes that children are “particularly vulnerable to the health complications associated with air pollution.” In a country with a predominantly young population, this could result in a strain on government resources in an effort to address the resulting public health crisis among children. According to the CIA World Factbook, 27 percent of the Mongolian population is 14 years old or younger. The country has also seen its dependency ratio rise by five percent since 2009.
UNICEF Mongolia recommends various short- and long-term solutions in the report to address the crisis. In the short term, the report recommends that Mongolia develop awareness initiatives which would educate the public on the health consequences of air pollution and the importance of wearing masks. The report also urges the national and provincial governments to classify pollution during the winter months as an “emergency situation,” which would allow more funds to be available to treat children with health complications. Presently, Mongolia allocates scarce amounts of funds toward healthcare relative to other countries worldwide. Health expenditures by the government make up a meager four percent of the country’s gross domestic product, at a rank of 153 globally.
Skepticism remains over whether the government will comprehensively fix the problem in the long run. It emphasizes the fact that curbing air pollution in urban areas is the only sustainable solution to issue. In March 2017, the government Cabinet approved a National Program on Reduction of Air and Environmental Pollution, which aims to “decrease pollutants by 80 percent, completely prohibit the use of unprocessed coal in areas except thermal power plants in Ulaanbaatar, and reduce air and environmental pollution by at least 50 percent by 2025.” Despite the Cabinet approving the program, the report’s authors write that “it will likely take a significant number of years before the air quality in Ulaanbaatar during the winter will be of acceptable levels.”