STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a story of climate migration. It's a story from Mongolia, where many people once lived in grasslands, the steppe. Harsh winters have pushed whole communities off the steppe and into cities. In the past 30 years, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar has nearly tripled in size. Now the migrants face another environmental hazard - the pollution of a growing city. NPR's Emily Kwong reports.
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city on Earth.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING, CARS DRIVING)
KWONG: And when temperatures drop in winter, the streets fill with smog. People walk with their heads down, noses buried in jackets and facemasks. The pollution stings their eyes and perfumes their clothes with an acrid, rotten egg smell. And to understand where it's coming from, you have to hop on a bus and travel north to the city's outskirts to a place called the ger district.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
KWONG: It's minus 20 degrees outside. My interpreter Ganbat Namjilsangarav and I are surrounded by chimneys spewing smoke.
We're at the top of a small hill. And the - when you get out here, the smog is thick.
The hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar were once green. Now they're awash in tin-roofed houses and circular gers. Gers are portable homes used by herders to move from place to place. And in the past 20 years, over 600,000 Mongolians have migrated to this city seeking jobs, education and a better life.
Forty-six-year-old Chantsal Vaanjir came to Ulaanbaatar in 2001.
CHANTSAL VAANJIR: (Through interpreter) It's difficult to live here because of air pollution. But life is more difficult in the countryside because there are no paid jobs.
KWONG: Chanstal - Mongolians tend to go by their first names - is preparing mutton dumplings for lunch while her children watch TV. Crouching over the ger stove, she lights a match...
(SOUNDBITE OF MATCH STRIKING)
KWONG: ...And builds a fire using raw coal. The ger district has no centralized heating system. Raw coal is what's available and affordable, burned by approximately 200,000 households just like hers for heating and cooking. But this dependence on coal is also what's smothering the city in smoke. Chantsal insists her children wear protective facemasks when they go outside.
VAANJIR: (Through interpreter) Smoke is still seeping through their breathing masks. The inside of their masks are black and full of soot.
KWONG: And it's damaging her children's lungs. Air pollution contains toxic particulates, some small enough to slide deep into the lung tissue.
This December, Chantsal’s 6-year-old son, Altanshagai Dorjsuren, was diagnosed with a lethal case of pneumonia, and doctors blamed it on the air pollution.
What do you remember about that?
ALTANSHAGAI DORJSUREN: (Speaking Mongolian).
KWONG: Here, it got painful, he says pointing to his chest. He's the opposite of shy, eager to listen to the family cat through my headphones.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAT PURRING)
KWONG: When he was sick, his lungs sounded just like that cat, Chantsal tells me. The air sacs in both lungs were filled with fluid. Altanshagai has recovered with medicine and bed rest, but many children do not. Pneumonia is now the country's second leading cause of death for children under the age of five.
Walk through any hospital, and you'll see why UNICEF has declared air pollution a child health crisis. At the Bayanzurkh Medical Center, patients pack the hallways.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD COUGHING)
KWONG: Simple flus are becoming serious respiratory illnesses. Bronchitis and asthma are pulling kids out of school and their parents out of work to care for them. Dr. Enkzul Jargal is the center's director. The 50-year-old is a pediatrician by training and considers pollution a violation of the rights of a child.
ENKZUL JARGAL: Disease is not for the children, actually, because they're not doing any bad things, just growing.
KWONG: Mongolia's government has pledged big money to clean up the air, the equivalent of $55 million since 2008. But little has changed. Looking over her purple glasses, Dr. Enkzul says hospitals are basically hamstrung, discharging patients into the very environment that made them sick in the first place.
JARGAL: I hate it. It's so stupid.
KWONG: And then last winter, big news broke of an impending ban on raw coal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The government took the decision to ban consumption of raw coal in Ulaanbaatar starting from May 15, 2019.
KWONG: This new law just went into effect. First-time offenders will be fined the equivalent of $115.
ULZIIBAYAR GONCHIG: People are tired of this pollution now.
KWONG: Thirty-five-year old Ulziibayar Gonchig is the head of strategic planning in the governor's office. Wealthier Mongolians like himself can afford an at-home air filter or a ticket out of town. There's a class difference when it comes to the quality of air you breathe in this city. Ulziibayar acknowledges this, noting how the households contributing to air pollution the most are those least able to escape it. And he rejects the idea that those in the ger district must choose between breath and warmth.
GONCHIG: They have to live. They have to burn something. They have to make heat in order to cook, to feed themselves.
KWONG: So, he says, we'll compensate them. In light of the ban, the government is putting a new product on the market made from semi-coke coal. While more expensive, these fuel-efficient briquettes are set to burn longer and cleaner. Skeptics abound.
How do we know that this is really going to happen? And obviously, it's a ban, so the people have to buy a different source of fuel. I recognize that. But what would you say to those who are, like, skeptical?
GONCHIG: Just bear with us. Next year will be much easier. People will understand where to get these coals, how to use them and what kind of stove they're going to use. So it's for all of our benefit.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
KWONG: Mongolians have heard promises from the government like this before. But everybody needs to chip in, Ulziibayar says, to make changes on the ground if there's any hope of seeing changes in the air. Emily Kwong, NPR News, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONGOLIAN MORIN KHUUR'S "WHITE PONY AND SUHO")
INSKEEP: Emily is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The Above the Fray Fellowship supports reporting from under-covered parts of the world. And the final part of our series from Mongolia is tomorrow. We'll take a trip down a coal road to China.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.