By: Mollie M. McSweeney

Pollution has been, and continues to be, a major problem for the country of Mongolia. Coal-fired power plants and the exhaust from the rising number of automobiles in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar are viewed as two major issues, which are also issues in the surrounding countries of China and India.[1] However, the issue that is unique to Mongolia is the tens and thousands of gers, or yurts, clustered around the city’s edges.[2] Gers, or yurts, are tent-like structures in which nomadic Mongolians dwell in.[3] A yurt can be put up within a half an hour, they are durable in strong winds and can be heated by burning coal or lined with insulation material, making it warm enough for people to survive the long winters.[4] For centuries, Mongolia’s nomads have lived within yurts spread out across the country of Mongolia, but the promise of better education and job opportunities have encouraged thousands of people to move to the big city of Ulaanbaatar.[5] Additionally, plummeting temperatures in recent years have forced many to leave their traditional way of life of herding cattle and sheep to move to the capital.[6] For the people leaving the countryside to live in the capital, residing within a yurt is the most affordable option for housing.[7]

Currently, 1.3 million people live in Ulaanbaatar, equating to about half of the country of Mongolia’s population, and yurts have increased as a popular form of cheap and familiar housing.[8] However, these yurts have exponentially increased the country’s pollution because the yurts cannot access Ulaanbaatar’s heating grid, and in order to stay warm in a yurt, people must burn coal throughout the long, harsh Mongolian winters.[9] Notably, Ulaanbaatar is known for being the world’s coldest capital, where temperatures average at forty-one degrees below zero during the winter.[10] These freezing temperatures force people who dwell in yurts to burn massive amounts of coal, wood and even trash, trying to stay warm.[11]

The city’s air is forcing its resident’s to be faced with major health concerns. A resident of the city reported that she was pregnant three times and lost all of her children, and another resident reported that his children attend kindergarten in Ulaanbaatar, but continually get ill and have to stay home.[12] Further, pollution-related pneumonia among children has become so high that it is not the second most common cause of mortality among Mongolian children.[13]  In 2011, in a study conducted by a professor of environmental health at Simon Fraser University, found that one in ten deaths in Mongolia can be attributed to air pollution.[14] The acceptable standard of total emissions of harmful breathable particles is twenty to twenty-five micrograms.[15] Shockingly, Ulaanbaatar has been known to measure at 1,000 micrograms.[16] According to World Health Organization, eighty percent of all pollution in Ulaanbaatar is caused by yurt stoves, the rest is caused by transportation, thermal power plants, and solid waste.[17]

In order to combat these harsh effects of coal burning, the Mongolian government has heightened restrictions on allowing migrants to reside in Ulaanbaatar.[18] However, despite this restriction, the dangerous pollution persists.[19] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox, noted that air pollution in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is the major cause for human rights violation in Mongolia.[20] Furthermore, Knox criticized the Mongolian government for prohibiting the migrants from the rural areas in order to reduce the air pollution, reasoning that even though the number of migrants is increasing, the restriction is violating the human right to choose their place of residence.[21] Article 13, Section 1 of United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “(e)veryone has the right to freedom of movement and residence.”[22] Therefore, the Mongolian government’s restriction is clearly a breach of the basic human right to live where he or she desires.

In September of 2017, Knox called for Mongolia to develop “progressive initiatives to eliminate harmful effects of mining and coal consumption as well as to protect the environment.”[23] Knox emphasized that the city of Ulaanbaatar is not only suffering from hazardous level of air and environmental pollution, but also clean drinking water issues.[24]

In response to Knox, on October 24, 2017, Mongolia’s Prime Minister, U. Khurelsukh addressed the air pollution issue at the national forum on air pollution.[25] Khurelsukh noted that between 2008-2016 the country of Mongolia has spent billions of dollars on projects and programs to reduce air pollution in Ulaanbaatar city, which have showed certain results, but the projects and programs did not reach expected outcomes.[26] The Prime Minister announced that despite not reaching expected outcomes, the country is expected to pass greater restrictions on coal usage and build more apartments to replace the yurts and decrease chimneys.[27] The Prime minister announced that the goal is to reduce air and environmental pollution by a minimum of fifty percent by 2025.[28]

With this pollution issue affecting the basic human rights of the people of Mongolia, as well as extreme health concerns the pollution causes Mongolian people, it is necessary that these issues be resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible. With the support of World Bank, a global “institution working for sustainable solutions that reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing countries,”[29] the Government of Mongolia has been able to mobilize about forty-five million dollars in donor assistance to help resolve the pollution issue. In addition, Word Bank also approved a fifteen-million-dollar allowance for the Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project, which will be implemented by the Ulaanbaatar Municipality.[30] As a short-term goal, the Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project aims to replace stoves and low-pressure boiler with newer, more energy-efficient models that burn fuel more cleanly.[31] In the long term, the Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project will hopefully enable the city’s government to explore affordable housing option that improve the environment, by allowing the new housing to get heat and hot water from the city, instead of burning coal to make their own heat.[32]

Mongolian people are in grave danger if this pollution problem persists. The pollution in Mongolia, and specifically in the city of Ulaanbaatar are dangerous enough to cause death. Therefore, these new strategic measures to correct this issue must be carried out effectively, in a timely manner.



[1] Terrence Edwards, Mongolia’s booming Ulan Bator, world’s coldest capital, is choking on smoke, Los Angeles Times, (May 15, 2015),

[2] Id.

[3] Yurts and Mongolian Gers, Project SafeCom Inc.,

[4] Id.

[5] Edwards, supra note 1.

[6] Eleanor Ross, How Deadly Pollution Became One of Mongolia’s Biggest Problems, Newsweek, (Mar. 2, 2017),

[7] Id.

[8] Edwards, supra note 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Terrence Edwards, Toxic smog in Mongolia’s capital worsens amid harsh winter, Reuters, (Feb. 7, 2017),

[12] Id.

[13] Ross, supra note 6.

[14] Id.

[15] Toxic smog in Mongolia, supra note 11.

[16] Id.

[17] Ross, supra note 6.

[18] Toxic smog in Mongolia, supra note 11.

[19] Id.

[20] R. Adiyasuren, Air pollution major cause for human rights violation in Mongolia: UN, TheJakartaPost, (Sep. 28, 2017),

[21] Id.

[22] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 13, sec. 1,

[23] R. Adiyasuren, supra note 20.

[24] Id.

[25] M. Unurzul, PM Addresses at National Forum on Air Pollution, Montsame, (Oct. 24, 2017),

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Who We Are, The World Bank,

[30] Curbing Air Pollution in Mongolia’s Capital, The World Bank, (Apr. 25, 2012),

[31] Id.

[32] Id.