Photo Essays | Environment | Central Asia

Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

Pollution and a serious health crisis have accompanied rapid urbanization in Mongolia’s capital

By Nicholas Muller for
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

A woman wearing a face mask in one of the most polluted areas of the city, Bayankohsuu. Although most severe between October and March, its average PM2.5 levels put it in the top five globally.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

Herders in traditional dress, deel, in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. In the last decade, it is estimated that 600,000 people have migrated from rural areas to the sole major city in the country.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

A family sits in traffic in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Rapid urbanization has created gridlock traffic and a city in the top five of air pollution levels in the world.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

In Bayankohsuu district pollution levels reach much higher than in the rest of the city. It’s population is the poorest and the district has some of the capital’s worst infrastructure. The burning of coal has been substantially higher here than in other parts of the city.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

In Ulaanbaatar, wood is sold on the side of the road after the government banned coal this year used for heating gers.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

A young Mongolian girl waits for the bus in the informal ger district of Bayankohsuu, one of the poorest and most polluted parts of Ulaanbaatar.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

The view from the informal ger district of Bayankohsuu which sits above the city at its edge. Although most severe between October and March, heavy pollution has become a health crisis.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

At Bayanzurkh hospital, Joohak Lee, a doctor from South Korea, sees as many patients as he can a few weekends per year to relieve local doctors. Bayarma, a 13-year-old girl is being treated for heart problems and indigestion.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

The city center of Ulaanbaatar is a far-cry from the informal ger districts ringing the city and is the key concentration of wealth in the country.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

The Ulaanbaatar city center is full of modern buildings constructed during the first mining boom earlier in the 2010s.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

A recently opened luxury cashmere store in the center of Ulaanbaatar.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Ulaanbaatar: Growing Strong and Sick

A coal-fired thermal power plant in Ulaanbaatar, which supplies a substantial portion of heating and energy to the ever-expanding capital.

Credit: Nicholas Muller

Read part one of this series on climate change, migration, mining, and economic stability in Mongolia. 

Nearly half of Mongolia’s entire population lives in its capital, Ulaanbaatar. 1.5 million people call the city home. Rapid urbanization has put a massive strain on the capital and has created a host of problems that are challenging for the government to handle. Worst of all is air pollution.

Despite government efforts to stem the pollution crisis, Ulaanbaatar remains one of the most polluted cities on earth, particularly in the winter months. It is fifth in the world in terms of PM2.5 (fine particles) air pollutants.

This year, in an effort to cut back on air pollution levels, the government banned coal. Coal is the primary heating and energy source for the sprawling city, from its heart to the informal ger districts. The government has proposed using another form of longer-burning charcoal and wood instead. 

The city of Ulaanbaatar is set into a bowl-shaped valley. This geography contributes to a phenomenon called inversion, in which the air pollution acts like a smog lid sitting atop the city, trapping particulate matter and gases. 

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One main issue is the smoke. Coal is burned by Mongolians for cooking and to stay warm during the winter. It is estimated that 10,000 households move to Ulaanbaatar per year and there is no end in sight despite government attempt to stem the influx. Rural migrants settle in informal ger districts, where there is no formal infrastructure or services. A government ban on migrants settling in these areas has had little impact.

In Bayankohsuu district, which is the most polluted district of Ulaanbaatar, pollution levels reach much higher than in the rest of the city. The area has seen the biggest population increase in the last decade. It’s population is the poorest and the district has some of the capital’s worst infrastructure. The burning of coal has been substantially higher here than in other parts of the city.

At Bayanzurkh hospital, Joohak Lee, a doctor from South Korea, sees as many patients as he can a few weekends per year to relieve local doctors. Bayarma, a 13-year-old girl is being treated for heart problems and indigestion. In combination with severe pollution-related illnesses, many Mongolians consume high levels of meat and have high blood pressure. 

Children are at an even higher risk as they breath twice as fast and are outside longer per day than most adults. It is estimated that 50 percent of children suffer from air pollution-related illnesses. Respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological impairments abound among children and pregnant women in the city. As one of the most polluted cities in the world in the winter, one in 10 die of air pollution-related causes. “If coal was not available, people would burn old tires to stay warm in the coldest months of winter,” says Lee. 

Residents have taken up short term solutions such as using masks, air purifiers, and cleaner burning stoves. Residents new and old must prepare for the winter soon approaching. Coal may be dirty, but freezing is not a pleasant alternative.

Mongolia adopted a national air pollution mitigation plan in March 2017 in response to its severe air pollution. The plan aims to reduce the current levels of air pollution by 80 percent by 2025. However, the Mongolian government is also planning more than six new coal power plants over the next decade in the absence of a coherent national energy strategy. The dominance of coal in Mongolian energy plans for new power facilities in Ulaanbaatar, together with the country’s aging power plants, transmission and distribution networks, have contributed to the creation of a highly inefficient energy sector.

The result is that Ulaanbatar continues to have one of the highest levels of air pollution in Asia and in the world. Although most severe between October and March, its average PM2.5 levels put it in the top five globally. The air pollution situation has become so severe that has been labeled a health crisis, particularly for children who continue to suffer the most where essential infrastructure was either never built or was poorly developed.

The current recovery is expected to accelerate with a GDP growth rate averaging more than 6 percent between 2019 and 2020 expect, driven by large foreign direct investments in mining. As the country experiences a new, but more modest boom, it will still have to face its most serious economic, environmental, and urban crises head on in combination with more government reforms to secure more stability for the country long term.

Nicholas Muller is an American photojournalist and writer.