In the times of Genghis Khan, Mongols worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky. Today, the sky of the nation’s capital Ulaan Baatar is more smoggy than it is blue, ranking in as one of the most polluted cities in the world.
This became apparent after a few days of living here. You can smell the grayness outside — in the afternoon, the smog often gets so dense that the nearby mountains disappear from view. Our hostel is located near a ger district, which refers to a community of unplanned, tent-like homes. Mongolian lifestyle has been forced to adapt to the changing environment, a problem resulting from both local and global pollution.
In the winter, the air becomes dangerous when -40 degree temperatures leave many families with no option but to burn anything for heat, including trash, tires or other toxic material.
Though the local pollution from Ulaan Baatar is not visible from the countryside, global pollution has taken its toll on the nomadic herding lifestyle on the steppe in the form of climate change. The climate in Mongolia has always been quite turbulent regardless of global warming; winters get as low as -40 degrees and summers are upwards of 100. This range has been growing along with the increase in carbon levels. Recently, more livestock are dying from the extreme temperatures.
“Climate change is responsible for some portions of the loss [of livestock] – but not all of it,” Dr Batjargal Zamba said in an interview with The Guardian. Zamba is an adviser at Mongolia’s environment ministry. “It’s a combination of change to climate, and also a change to Mongolian economic activity and lifestyle.”
In Khara Khorum, the nation’s ancient capital, we saw hundreds of herder settlements along the steppe. 30 years ago, however, the population of these nomadic communities was nearly twice this amount. Many of them have moved to Ulaan Baatar to find different work.
This migration from rural to urban is starkly visible in the sprawling ger districts surrounding the capital. The portability and practicality of gers have always served for the nomadic lifestyle on the steppe. Now, 60 percent of Ulaan Baatar’s population live in gers, many of whom were forced out of their nomadic lifestyle after losing their livestock to find livable wages.
Since these ger districts are entirely unplanned and growing at a rapid pace; many families lack basic amenities like access to water and safe waste disposal. Community members are working to alleviate some of these problems, notably the Ulaan Baatar-based Ger Mapping Center. This NGO collects data on the many unplanned ger districts and maps out a plan for increasing their accessibility to these resources, then proposes solutions for the issues to the city government.
Despite the efforts to improve the living condition in Ulaan Baatar., these ger districts only grow in size as herders flock to the city.
The effects of climate change strike so close to the Mongolian home that it has forced many to physically relocate theirs. Mongolians are witnessing the effects of rising carbon levels in a way many Americans have never experienced. The beauty of this country needs to be preserved, and as Americans, we have to think both locally and globally to protect this natural beauty that is often out of sight.