The signs at Saturday’s air pollution protest were stark: “Our children are sick and dying from air pollution”, one read. “End the smog before it ends you”, and “We are slowly dying.”
More than 1,000 protestors, from the young to the old, turned out at Sukhbaatar Square to demand the government act on dangerous levels of air pollution.
The “Booj Ukhlee” protest, which roughly translates to “choking to death” or “feeling extremely frustrated and angry”, was the third demonstration organized by a grassroots group of concerned citizens called Moms and Dads Against Smog (MDAS).
Organizers have collected 10,000 signatures on a petition, which calls on the government to implement a sustainable program with measurable results to reduce air pollution in the short, medium and long term.
Air pollution-related diseases are the top three causes of premature death in adults in Mongolia. In children, pneumonia caused by air pollution is linked to 15 percent of deaths, and hospitals are full of sick kids.
Seventy percent of PM 2.5, fine dust particles in the air, in Ulaanbaatar comes from coal-burning stoves in the ger district, with power plants, vehicles and industry making up the rest, according to a World Bank report.
In recent weeks, the anti-pollution message has spread internationally with demonstrations being held as far as New York City, Chicago, New Jersey and Virginia in the United States to Budapest in Europe where people are advocating for Mongolians’ right to breathe fresh air.
Ulaanbaatar’s PM 2.5 level is more than seven times higher than safe limits determined by the World Health Organization (WHO) and this figure is predicted to significantly increase over the next 10 years unless drastic change occurs.
It’s no secret that dirty air is the capital’s most compelling problem.
But for the first time, real momentum has gathered, which has put air pollution firmly on the national political agenda and spurred the government to act.
Last Friday, the Ulaanbaatar City Council approved a three-month air pollution reduction plan that includes installing more filters in stoves in the ger district, introducing better heating standards for apartments, creating new residential areas, and carrying out heating and technical upgrades at schools and kindergartens.
This adds to last month’s move by Ulaanbaatar Mayor S.Batbold who announced a temporary ban on rural residents moving to Ulaanbaatar.
At Saturday’s protest, The UB Post asked residents why they turned out to protest, how the pollution affects their daily lives and what they want to tell their government. Here is a collection of their responses.
Ts.Buyanduuren, 43-year-old, Bayanzurkh District
“There are over a million people living in this city. In a couple of years, I’m 100 percent sure there will not be a healthy percent of us left. We are constantly being hurt health-wise.
“The right to live in a safe, healthy environment is being violated. Our constitutional rights are being violated. The reason why people don’t leave (the city) is because of their jobs. The main reason for the air pollution is the ineffective government policy.
“Public rallies like these are important. Even though we are experiencing economic hardships, we are here because air pollution is very important to residents of UB.”
B.Nomintuya, 15-year-old, Bayanzurkh District
“The air pollution level has got so bad that I can’t see what’s in front of me when I go to school early in the morning.
Just yesterday, my mother was driving and almost drove over a police officer because she couldn’t see clearly in front of her.
“How long do we have to put up with this for?”
B.Gantumur, 35-year-old, Songinokhairkhan District
“I have three daughters and I am fed-up. In my district, it’s so polluted that my children can’t breathe properly and so many kids have lung infections.
“Since we can’t do anything to reduce air pollution straight away, I want the government to make a policy for children, at least for the health of children. They promised they would give medicine to the small children but they haven’t given any. The mayor says that the city needs more children’s hospitals but the district mayor said there’s no need for it. There’s no unity on this issue, they just talk and talk.
“Public rallies like these are the only way the government will take attention and listen to us. I also oppose the restriction on the rural to urban migration. People are just looking for opportunities, if they have no herding in the countryside, they have to come here and look for opportunities. We should develop the countryside and create more jobs there.”
B.Narmandakh, 35-year-old, Khan-Uul District
“If you go to the hospitals, many, many children are sick and many of them are dying because of air pollution. We are choking to death.
“I have a son and my son gets very sick in winter. We have spent lots of money putting him in hospital.
“I want our government to take proper action and not spend our tax money for nothing. There should be some results, we don’t see any results, so I’m here today as a mother to demand our government take urgent action.
O.Saruul , 47-year-old, Chingeltei District
“This situation scares and worries me a great deal. I used to be a perfectly healthy person, yet I cough regularly now. I have bronchitis. I don’t smoke cigarettes but I probably have more damage to my lungs than a person who does smoke.
“We came here for the future of our children but the air pollution affects all of us, regardless of age. The pollution does not only occur in winter. If you look closely, you can see the grey smog in the summer.
“My nephew cannot go to kindergarten, he goes for one day and comes back sick. He has taken leave from his kindergarten until March. It seems like he always has a cold.
“The main source of the air pollution is the uncontrolled spread of the ger districts. Poverty has caused this. How can we reduce poverty? We must develop manufacturing and create jobs. People won’t burn tires to stay warm if they have adequate income. If they can’t fully redevelop ger districts into apartments, they must at least develop the infrastructure of ger districts.
“I support the move to restrict rural to urban migration temporarily. This is the right step. They should have done this a long time ago. There are rights that every citizen is afforded but there are also responsibilities. People have not fulfilled their responsibilities.”
B.Yagaantsetseg, 71-year-old, Chingeltei District
“The air pollution is too extreme. Just like people can’t breathe in a crowded room, Ulaanbaatar residents are fighting for air due to overpopulation.
“The only way we can resolve this is by decentralizing and moving more services out of the city. The government should listen to us. If at least one government official participated in this protest and listened, it would’ve made a difference.
“We have enough policies and projects – all we need is to implement them. The government should also pay attention to other environmental issues such as water and soil pollution.”
N.Khosbayar, 31-year-old, Bayanzurkh District
“I don’t want to live amongst air pollution. Everybody is getting sick because of air pollution; my child, for example, caught the flu three times this winter.
“I also oppose the ban on the rural to urban migration. Developing the infrastructure of the electrical heating will help solve the problem. Limiting the movement of people to the city is only a short-term solution and won’t help the real, long-term problem.”
Reporting by Casey-Ann Seaniger, B.Chintushig and B.Dulguun