In the world’s coldest capital, many burn coal and plastic just to survive temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees — but warmth comes at a price: deadly pollution makes Ulaanbataar’s air too toxic for children to breathe, leaving parents little choice but to evacuate them to the countryside.
This exodus is a stark warning of the future for urban areas in much of Asia, where scenes of citizens in anti pollution masks against a backdrop of brown skies are becoming routine, rather than apocalyptic.
Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted cities on the planet, alongside New Delhi, Dhaka, Kabul, and Beijing. It regularly exceeds World Health Organisation recommendations for air quality even as experts warn of disastrous consequences, particularly for children, including stunted development, chronic illness, and in some cases death.
Erdene-Bat Naranchimeg watched helplessly as her daughter Amina battled illness virtually from birth, her immune system handicapped by the smog- choked air in Mongolia’s capital.
“We would constantly be in and out of the hospital,” Naranchimeg told AFP, adding that Amina contracted pneumonia twice at the age of two, requiring several rounds of antibiotics.
This is not a unique case in a city where winter temperatures plunge towards uninhabitable, particularly in the districts that rural workers moved to in search of a better life.
Here row upon row of the traditional tents — known as gers — are warmed by coal, or any other flammable material available. The resulting thick black smoke shoots out in plumes, blanketing surrounding areas in a film of smog that makes visibility so poor it can be hard to see even a few metres ahead.
Hospitals are packed and young children are vulnerable, common colds can quickly escalate into life-threatening illness.