If you think air pollution in China has been bad, consider Mongolia.
Levels of particulate matter in the air have risen to almost 80 times the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – and five times worse than Beijing during the past week’s bout with the worst smog of the year.
Just as the Chinese capital contends with pollution from the surrounding industrial province of Hebei and coal-fired power plants in the northern provinces of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, Mongolian power plants working overtime during the frigid winter belch plumes of soot into the atmosphere, while acrid smoke from coal fires shrouds the shanty towns of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in a brown fog.
Angry residents held a protest, organised via social media, on December 26. In minus 20 degree temperatures, protesters gathered outside government offices to shout “smog is a silent killer” and “we can’t breathe”.
The level of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, in the air as measured hourly peaked at 1985 micrograms per cubic metre on December 16 in the capital’s Bayankhoshuu district, according to data posted by government website agaar.mn. The daily average settled at 1071 micrograms that day.
The WHO recommends PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25 micrograms over 24 hours.
In Beijing, the year’s worst bout of noxious smog prompted officials to issue the year’s second red alert last week and order 1200 factories to close or cut production. Earlier this week, PM2.5 levels exceeded 400 in the capital, and Chinese officials on Tuesday cancelled 351 flights because of limited visibility. The highest daily average in the past week, on Wednesday, registered 378. Worse, the PM2.5 reading in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, exceeded 1000 micrograms per cubic metre earlier this week, according to the China National Environment Monitoring Centre.
But Mongolia’s contracting economic growth and a widening budget gap have left authorities few resources to fight the dangerous smog.
After first cutting the night-time electricity tariff by 50 per cent to encourage residents to heat their homes with electric heaters instead of raw coal or other flammable material that is often toxic, Prime Minister Erdenebat Jargaltulga announced on Friday that the tariff would eliminated entirely as of January 1.
Longer term, he proposed building apartments to replace makeshift housing using a loan from China, doing more to encourage electric heating, and reducing poverty to slow migration to the capital, according to a government statement.
The conversion of ger districts, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes including tents, into apartment complexes has so far been stymied by an economic crisis that has pushed the government to seek economic lifelines from partners including the International Monetary Fund and China.
On Wednesday, Defence Minister Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu announced that a 50-bed wing of Ulaanbaatar’s military hospital would open up for children with pneumonia, as city hospitals were filled to capacity.
Public anger over the government’s handling of pollution has been growing on social media, where residents share pictures of the smog, encourage methods of protection and call on the government to do more to protect citizens. The latest trend Friday had Mongolians changing their profile pictures on Facebook to show themselves wearing air pollution masks.
The air pollution protest next week was being organised for Sukhbaatar Square, the capital’s central plaza. A crowdfunding campaign to purchase 100 air purifiers for hospitals and schools raised more than $US1400 in five days.
“The hospital I visited today did not have any air purifiers, even though 40 mothers were scattered along a narrow corridor, each with a sick baby in their arms,” Onon Bayasgalan, an environmentalist who organised the crowdfunding campaign, said on Thursday. “They sleep on fold-out cots in the corridors, as the hospital rooms are full of pneumonia cases.”
Earlier this month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned of an impending crisis if the smoke levels were not reduced, calling children under five and those still in the womb the most vulnerable.
“Children are projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life,” the UNICEF report said, warning of the rising economic costs of these diseases unless “major new measures” were urgently enacted.
“The alarming levels of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar during the long winter cannot be neglected any longer, as their short- and long-term negative health impact has been demonstrated, especially for children.”
A 2013 study by Canada’s Simon Fraser University concluded that 10 per cent of deaths in Ulaanbaatar were related to complications from air pollution.
“Most of my colleagues’ children are hospitalised or at home struggling with respiratory problems,” Lhagva Erdene, news director at Mongol TV station, said. “We feel helpless and frustrated for the inaction of our government.”
Neither the ministers for foreign affairs nor the environment replied to requests for comment.
Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal, who heads the Business Council of Mongolia in the capital, said he and his family try to stay indoors as much as possible and spend weekends outside the city.
“There have been shifting policies, and that is frustrating,” he said. “There needs to be consistent policy and stability so businesses can find solutions to this problem.”
On Friday, PM2.5 levels in northern Ulaanbaatar peaked at 932 at midday, while the monthly average for December so far was 518. Meanwhile in Beijing, where the government lifted its pollution warning on Thursday, skies were clear and air quality improved.