From my position by the bank of the Selbe River, a whirlwind of activity extends in all directions.

I am standing in a line of first-graders, handing down buckets of water from the river to the row of trees we have just planted, while more children run back and forth with empty containers and some clear the ground around the trees of detritus. The sacks of rubbish we have already filled sit to one side.

This is the environmental aid activity organized by Projects Abroad Mongolia for the first grade students from School No. 31, one day ahead of National Tree Planting Day. Muddy, dusty, and happy, the children couldn’t be more eager about the work they are doing and that alone makes me confident enough to say that this scheme was a success.

What Projects Abroad arranged was a practical session aimed at engaging the school children with the environment around them and educating them on the challenges the world faces. This meant litter-picking along the river, digging the earth, and of course, planting trees.

National Tree Planting Day first began in Mongolia six years ago, and is celebrated every October and May. It is part of the government’s ongoing efforts to tackle the country’s environmental issues and in recent years, progress has been very successful. Even big businesses are getting behind the movement, such as Newcom Group, who pledged to plant 1,100 trees in the Tuul River Valley.

The Prime Minister highlighted at his own tree planting event on May 14 that now roughly 70 percent of new trees survive. He followed this with a promise to “support the Ministry of Education, Green Development and Tourism in establishing green areas… and creating small gardens in khoroos and provinces,” and it is undoubtedly wonderful to see such public support by the government for measures against environmental damage.

However, National Tree Planting Day is an attempt to address a far bigger problem than the lack of greenery in Mongolia’s cities: the country faces a war against climate change on many fronts. In the south, the Gobi Desert is expanding at a rapid rate due to deforestation and overgrazing; the Tuul River suffers from pollution from the capital’s sewage as well as minerals and sediments from gold mining; and meanwhile in Ulaanbaatar, a host of environmental problems remain unsolved.

Everyone is aware of the capital’s extreme pollution issues in winter, when fine-particle pollution levels rise to up to 12 times the World Health Organisation’s maximum recommendation and visibility in smog can drop to 10 meters. Beyond this, overconsumption of water is depleting the rivers which serve Ulaanbaatar and the water treatment facilities are too old and inefficient to deal with the high levels of industrial pollution.

The Ministry of Environment, Green Development, and Tourism has plans in place to face these problems, such as phasing out some thermal power plants around the Khushigt Valley Airport in favor of solar energy, and developing bicycle lanes through Ulaanbaatar over the next four years to encourage eco-friendly travel. However, these are long-term projects and at a domestic level environmentally-conscious activity is limited. There are no coherent waste management schemes for encouraging the separation of recycling and landfill, the impact of the rubbish versus recycling bins in public places borders on negligible, and there is a volume of litter not just in the capital but at sites like Terelj National Park, which belies the love Mongolians hold for the environment.

With this in mind, National Tree Planting Day seems at worst a superficial demonstration of environmental support and at best retroactive, offsetting existing failures by Mongolia to protect the world we live in.

As such I was very glad to be involved in a truly forward-looking project.

In dealing with the here and now of threats to the environment, it can be easy to overlook the future. We may replace the deforested trees and improve the water treatment facilities, but counter-action is no match for prevention and unless we try to combat the problems at their source Mongolia will remain as it is. Human activity is to blame for the country’s current situation, from mining and deforestation to simple littering, and to me it seems that challenging existing attitudes towards the environment will truly help by educating people on how unsustainable this practice is.

By working with the youngsters of School No. 31 I feel we have hit an important point.

The teachers, parents, and volunteers did not simply march the children out to a riverbank to pat soil over a sapling. The children themselves worked throughout the whole process, and learned as they did about different aspects of protecting the environment. We touched on the dangers of littering to wildlife, how trees help pollution, and why we need to plant the trees in the first place. Although Mongolia’s national curriculum specifies the development of “appreciation and culture of esthetics and ethics, [and] awareness of civic duties” no mention is made of environmental consciousness so it was exciting and a little momentous to be going into details and really explaining what is happening to the world.

Simply put, this will be their planet in the future. Helping them to understand how to protect it is one of the greatest lessons we can teach.

Children planting trees for environmental aid on the bank of Selbe River
Children planting trees for environmental aid on the bank of Selbe River

The activity that Projects Abroad set up did just this, and I count it as the biggest achievement that every single child was enthusiastic about the job they had and amazingly keen to complete it. Litter-picking may be a joyless task to most, but by explaining the purpose behind it, every full bin-bag became a tangible piece of proof of the good they were doing for the environment. For me, seeing the trash sacks piling up was a doubly rewarding experience.

Of course greater issues need addressing too; by the time these schoolchildren are 30 they will have to face surface temperature increases, water scarcity, and most certainly the fallout of Mongolia’s mining boom. Nonetheless,although it seems insignificant, starting with tree planting is most importantly a start.

It may be overly optimistic but I think that starting this dialogue now can pave the way for greater consciousness and activity later, and I hope that projects like this can expand across more schools and continue every year. The greater the outreach, the greater the chance that one less child will drop litter now because he/she knows it makes the ground unhealthy. Such changes may be small but I firmly believe that they are significant. I felt we made so much progress in one day and it would be a great disappointment for this movement to lose momentum.

For me, the most valuable contribution that this tree planting activity has made to Mongolia, the environment, and National Tree Planting Day is not the 10 trees which now line the Selbe River, but it’s the discussion about our environment that 50 children have now entered.