Officials continue to turn blind eye to UB smog

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Many facts show how much the air pollution problem worsened in the winter of 2021 to 2022. For the first time, the prime minister dismissed officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, including the minister, this year due to their poor performance in addressing air pollution. As a result, the new minister’s focus has turned to air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. In other words, this group dismissal has taught a lesson and become a huge reminder of this urgent problem concerning public health.

The priorities of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism state determining and implementing environmental and tourism policies that meet the goals of sustainable development of Mongolia, coordinating activities related to nature conservation and maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. At the core of environmental policies lies the big problem is environmental pollution, with air pollution being the most serious as it violates the right of citizens to live in a healthy and safe environment. Therefore, the central state administrative organization in charge of environmental issues and the minister who manages it are most concerned about this noxious problem. That is why the government appointed a working group led by the minister of environment and tourism to resolve this problem, but some were held responsible for failure to fulfill their duties. Unfortunately, the newly-appointed Environment Minister B.Bat-Erdene doesn’t seem to still understand the gravity of the situation or his role. He responded to a citizen’s demand for higher attention to the issue of smoke, saying, “Why should the Ministry of Environment and Tourism be associated with smoke issues?” It appears that air pollution is a “small” problem that the ministry does not need to be concerned about. What’s more, he is the chairman of the National Committee for Environmental Pollution Reduction. Officials and experts in this field do not need to run around ger areas and clean people’s stoves and chimneys, but they should come up with an optimal policy for mitigating air pollution and creating conditions for its implementation.

In March 2020, the government instructed heads of relevant ministries, departments and agencies to take significant measures to reduce car emissions. Since January this year, or since the new environment minister was appointed, no progress has been made. The ministry talked about coal briquette reserves and plant capacity throughout summer and fall. The issue of checking and decommissioning vehicles that emit a lot of smoke has only recently been discussed. The “Green Technology-2022” exhibition promoting techniques and technologies to reduce environmental pollution was held last week for the second time along with a discussion on “Methods to improve the quality of coal briquettes”. Yet, nothing has changed. Many meaningless discussions are being held as the air pollution in the city continues to worsen year after year. Previous achievements have gone down the drain.

Recently, the National Committee for Environmental Pollution Reduction reported that air pollution in Ulaanbaatar was at a “normal” level when air quality indexes are reaching dangerous levels in most parts of the city every now and then, especially in the mornings and evenings. It seems that most people no longer have much expectations from the measures undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the National Committee for Environmental Pollution Reduction either. These authorities have already admitted their unwillingness and inability to fight against the smoke themselves.

Let me prove with just one example how the government and the organizations responsible for air pollution mitigation are not moving forward. Last January, the government directed relevant authorities to review the quality and standards of coal briquettes. This work was led by Minister B.Bat-Erdene and research and evaluation by experts concluded that some substances included in the composition of briquettes emit more sulfur gas than raw coal but it could be improved. As a result, Tavan Tolgoi Tulsh LLC obtained a binder according to new standards and technology and produced a new version of briquettes on a trial basis. Everyone could see that there was a problem with these briquettes.

So the old technology is back in use – the one that emits high contents of sulfur gas. The company explained that it made this decision based on the supply and reserves of raw materials for making briquettes. Experts have discovered one of the reasons why it was not making progress in reducing air pollution, but the main institutions are not taking any measures against it.

For years, they have been defending coal briquettes, promoting as the most efficient way to curb the city smog. But now, despite finding out that there’s a problem with them, the government is still relying on coal briquettes. There are many organizations and officials responsible for reducing air pollution at the policy level and at the implementation level. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the National Committee for Environmental Pollution Reduction have experts specialized in air pollution. There is even a special agency called the Air and Environmental Pollution Control Department in Ulaanbaatar. The president has an environmental and green development policy advisor and the mayor of Ulaanbaatar has a deputy in charge of air and environmental pollution. But none of them are doing their job properly.

Because they don’t do their job enough, air pollution is now neglected. All the attention has now shifted to the coal theft allegations and public protest. If the government is unable to effectively operate and utilize all of these institutions on air pollution, it should streamline their functions by removing duplications of functions and save state budget funds. If officials are stuck and unable to determine their next course of action, they can ask for help from international organizations and countries with experience in this field.

As in the case of the Tuul and Selbe River Improvement Projects, it is possible to get consulting services from skilled experts and involve them in this work. When our country announced the implementation of the “Billion of Trees” national movement, other countries expressed their support and willingness to cooperate. Air pollution in Ulaanbaatar was the primary focus of the government last winter. But now, the government has “bigger problems” to handle than air pollution. Citizens are also busy chasing after coal thieves and not raising their voices for their right to breathe fresh air. In the meantime, the air quality in the capital is getting worse by the day and more people, including children and pregnant women, are getting poisoned.

Air pollution is the biggest problem for the residents of Ulaanbaatar. It is frustrating to watch relevant ministries and government agencies not doing anything serious in this regard. Air pollution is a huge problem concerning the health and life of all of us not just in Ulaanbaatar but the whole country and it must be dealt with once and for all immediately. At the very least, someone who can take on this task, initiate effective works and get results should be assigned to it.     

Due to higher emissions from briquettes, symptoms such as sore throats became common and some residents mentioned they were forced to stay outside, exposed to the cold and toxic air, for long periods of time until the smoke in their homes cleared up. But instead of finding answers as to why the emissions increased, authorities looked for ways to protect themselves and escape from responsibility. Instead of caring about the health of the citizens who are exposed to toxic substances every day, they blamed them and looked down on ger area residents.

Researchers and scientists have been putting forward suggestions to implement comprehensive measures aimed at tackling other sources of air pollution rather than focusing on coal briquettes alone. Other sources include vehicles and power plants that emit large amounts of air pollutants. However, there are no significant or consistent measures being taken in these areas.

Ulaanbaatar’s emissions tend to increase as the weather gets colder. However, as sharp drops in outside temperature are forecast for this month, residents are likely to be exposed to even more toxic substances released into the air. Instead of getting eliminated as promised by officials, air pollution is rising back up and attention and action are needed to tackle it once and for all.

Mongolia ranks fourth in the world in terms of air pollution after India, which imposed a partial lockdown due to air pollution, according to last year’s World Air Quality Report. The PM 2.5 concentration in Mongolian air is currently 9.3 times above the WHO annual air quality guideline value. More specifically, the most polluted part of the country is Ulaanbaatar, where the majority of the population lives.

FACTS:

On January 10, 2022. The government orders ministers of energy and environment and tourism and the Ulaanbaatar mayor to establish a working group to check the quality of coal briquettes, issue laboratory conclusions and re-check their standards.

On January 13, 2022. Minister of Environment and Tourism N.Urtnasan says, “It is impossible to make a decision without determining the actual cause of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. Inspections will be held in all areas. In the first phase, drones will be flown to high-pollution zones and families that are emitting a lot of smoke will be detected.”

On January 15, 2022. Prime Minister L.Oyun-Erdene instructs Minister N.Urtnasan and Minister of Energy N.Tavinbekh to take significant measures to reduce air pollution within two weeks.

On January 15, 2022. Members of the working group in charge of air pollution conduct an urgent inspection in ger areas and checks what families were burning. During this time, it was discovered that a family was burning old clothes. They tried to spread this through the media and show that the “irresponsibility of citizens” was the main cause of the increase in city smoke levels.

On January 17, 2022. Cabinet decides to dismiss Minister N.Urtnasan for failing to fulfill her duties and not working well enough in combating air pollution.

On January 18, 2022. Prime Minister L.Oyun-Erdene appoints B.Bat-Erdene as the new minister of environment and tourism.

On January 21, 2022. After taking office, the new minister says that the problem of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar will not be solved with coal briquettes alone. He announces plans for new comprehensive measures.

On December 11, 2022. Minister B.Bat-Erdene said that the issue of air pollution does not concern the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Enkhnaranjav Tumurbaatar

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