Mongolians See Red, Protest Against World’s Worst Air

Just look at Mongolia if you think air pollution in China has been bad.

Levels of particulate matter in the air have risen to five times worse than Beijing during the past week’s bout with the worst smog of the year and are almost 80 times the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organization.

While acrid smoke from coal fires shrouds the shantytowns of the capital, Ulaanbaatar in a brown fog, Mongolian power plants, working overtime during the frigid winter, belch plumes of soot into the atmosphere. Angry residents led a protest, organized on social media, on Dec. 26.

According to data posted by government website agaar.mn, in the capital’s Bayankhoshuu district, the level of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, in the air as measured hourly peaked at 1,985 micrograms a cubic meter on Dec. 16. The daily average settled at 1,071 micrograms that day.

PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25 micrograms over 24 hours is recommended by the World Health Organization.

Officials were prompted to issue the year’s first red alert and order 1,200 factories to close or cut output in Beijing during the year’s worst bout of noxious smog. On December 20, Chinese officials cancelled 351 flight departures because of limited visibility as PM2.5 levels exceeded 400 in the capital earlier last week. According to the China National Environment Monitoring Center, earlier last week, the PM2.5 reading in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

Mongolian authorities are left with few resources to fight the dangerous smog dye to the country’s contracting economic growth and a widening budget gap.

Prime Minister Erdenebat Jargaltulga announced Friday that the tariff would eliminated entirely as of Jan. 1. after first cutting the nighttime electricity tariff by 50 percent to encourage residents to heat their homes with electric heaters instead of raw coal or other flammable material that is often toxic. Doing more to encourage electric heating, and reducing poverty to slow migration to the capital, according to a government statement, in the longer term, he proposed building apartments to replace makeshift housing using a loan from China.

Stymied by an economic crisis that has pushed the government to seek economic lifelines from partners including the International Monetary Fund and China, the conversion of ger districts, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes including tents, into apartment complexes has so far been stalled.

On the social media, residents share pictures of the smog, encourage methods of protection and call on the government to do more to protect citizens as public anger over the government’s handling of pollution has been growing.

The air pollution protest next week was being organized for Sukhbaatar Square, the capital’s central plaza. More than $1,400 in five days was raised through a crowdfuding campaign to purchase 100 air purifiers for hospitals and schools.

“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 organized the crowdfunding campaign, said. “They sleep on fold out cots in the corridors, as the hospital rooms are full of pneumonia cases.’’

“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” are 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.’’

He and his family try to stay indoors as much as possible and spend weekends outside the city, said Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal, who heads the Business Council of Mongolia in the capital.

“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.’’

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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