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Ulan Bator, the world's second most polluted city


Kevan Karanjia
Staff Writer

Monday, October 28, 2013, 8:54 PM - We've seen the pictures of polluted cities and people wearing masks throughout China but its smog problem is nothing compared to Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator.

It's the coldest capital in the world, a place many could not locate on a map.

It has a population just over a twentieth of Beijing, yet according to the World Health Organization, it is considered the second most polluted city in the world - behind Ahvaz, Iran. 

Ulan Bator, a historic centre of the ancient world and a city that still maintains a strong connection to its nomadic roots is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of pollution.

Unfortunately, as temperatures plunge and winter sets in, people begin to seek heat by firing up old, coal-powered stoves.

Millions of stoves ignited around the same time produce a smog so thick, it hangs like a yellow cloud you can see from any hilltop.

The stoves are a staple of traditional Yurt (portable tent) living and a common feature in the homes of the poorest residents of Ulan Bator.

More than half the city's inhabitants rely on them to cook and keep warm, as temperatures can drop to - 40C.

Pollution is believed to be responsible for one in ten deaths and a 45 per cent rise in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses between 2004 and 2008.

There is now a fear that the reach of air pollution could be extending to foetuses, causing birth defects.

This has authorities looking at solutions to curb emissions quickly. 

Smog over Mongolia's capital on a good day.

Smog over Mongolia's capital on a good day.

Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University is leading a study to see whether using air filters could reduce the impact of coal stoves in poor Yurt districts. 

Some residents who were given test filters reported immense amounts of pollutants caught after just two days. 

Filters though can be expensive and may not work for everybody. 

Another solution is to cut stove emissions by 50 per cent, which would could cut year-round levels of the large and harmful PM10 particles by a third. 

To do this, authorities - with the help of the World Bank - have spent millions of dollars subsidising the distribution of over 100,000 "clean" stoves. 

Since the program began earlier this year, some pollutants have dropped by 25 per cent. 

The findings are still preliminary and more research must be done. 

The stove's use half the amount of coal and are easier to clean. 

In the end officials admit there are just too many people living in the capital. 

Since 1979, the number of people living in Ulan Bator has tripled, and now accounts for a third of Mongolia's total population. 

If substantial pollution reduction is to be achieved, rural areas must be developed and Ulan Bator must stop expanding. 

In a county experiencing an economic boom thanks to a rapidly expanding mining industry, that may not be too far-fetched.

The murky grey colour shows the extent of smog over China and parts of Mongolia while the bright areas are fog (Photo courtesy NASA/NOAA)

The murky grey colour shows the extent of smog over China and parts of Mongolia while the bright areas are fog (Photo courtesy NASA/NOAA)

China faces similar struggles

Last week crippling smog engulfed parts of northeast China. It was so bad, that the city of Harbin - with a population of 10 million - had to close schools and cancel over 250 flights.

The smog enveloped the city with a dark haze that reduced visibility to less than 50 metres. 

Monitoring stations showed that concentrations of PM2.5, airborne particles considered very harmful to people, reached a level of 1,000 last Monday. The World Health Organization considers a level of 25 acceptable. 

This had officials from around the region meeting this month to adopt strict measures controlling air pollution as the winter heating season approaches.

There are also new images from NASA showing how bad the situation has really escalated over the last year.

The extent of smog over China taken by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite (Photo courtesy NASA/NOAA)

The extent of smog over China taken by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite (Photo courtesy NASA/NOAA)

Beijing to cut smog with car pollution tax
Air quality: What is it and what can I do?

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