Winter Air Pollution

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It’s September, the morning after the first snowfall of the season, and Otgontuuya already knows that winter will be brutal. She sits on a pink plastic chair in her living room, takes off her thick jacket and breast-feeds her crying toddler. She has just gotten home, having walked across the uneven dirt roads overlooking the city, where the white ground is slowly turning a slushy gray. Even when the weather is nice, sharp turns and steep inclines often make it impossible for off-road vehicles to reach her neighborhood.

Otgontuuya is 28, and like most Mongolians, goes by only her first name. She is married, a stay-at-home mother who spends her free time sewing traditional tunic-like clothes for her kids. “I live for my children,” she says, rocking her 1-year-old daughter in her lap.

Along with freezing temperatures, winter brings memories of the child that never came. Six years ago, Otgontuuya was informed during a routine checkup that her baby had stopped growing. She miscarried at 12 weeks.

The culprit, doctors told her, was air pollution.

Thus begins this article on maternal health in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, by Liana Aghajanian (on Al Jazeera). I very strongly recommend that you read that article, which explains the tenuous situation well and includes photographs of life in the capital city for its residents who do not live in apartment buildings.

Somehow, in all of our preparations and research about Mongolia prior to arriving in the country, we missed the fact that Ulaanbaatar has terrible winter air pollution. Still not sure how that happened. Although I’ve read conflicting reports on this, UB is purportedly the most polluted capital city in the world in winter and the pollution is worse than in Beijing, China. The primary reason for this is that central heating comes from steam plants, which run on coal, and the city is lined with ger districts with residents burning coal and other flammable items for heat and cooking. I don’t suppose it helps that the city lies snugly between mountain ranges.

We are fortunate to live and work on the southern end of the city where we have a lot of wind that helps clear out the worst of the pollution. Even so, the outside air smells of coal smoke from late October to March or thereabouts. Depending on how cold it is, there are times when we can’t see certain parts of the city because of how thick the smoke is. Like all difficulties, it’s manageable with the right gear, but I have yet to meet a UB resident who doesn’t complain about the pollution. Looking at the rest of winter ahead of us (and this year’s winter looks like it might be a dzud), I don’t suspect we’ll have clear air for awhile. Fortunately, this too shall pass.

Do keep mothers and babies in your thoughts as winter progresses. (And sorry that this is not a cheerier post so close to the holidays…)

Beth sig