Demanding cleaner air in Mongolia, with Aza Tsogtsaikhan, director and co-founder of Breathe Mongolia

Written by AJ Cortese Published on     5 mins read

Started as a grassroots movement, Breathe Mongolia has attracted big-name backers like UNICEF, the European Union, and the US Embassy in Mongolia.

Aza Tsogtsaikhan is a human rights and environmental activist, serving as co-founder and director of Breathe Mongolia, a non-profit aimed at increasing awareness of Mongolia’s air pollution crisis. In addition to her activism, she works full-time as a strategic financial analyst for IBM.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you introduce yourself and why you were inspired to start Breathe Mongolia?

Aza Tsongtsaikhan (AT): I grew up in Mongolia, but spent half my life working and studying overseas in Australia and the US. In the last few years, I came to understand the health crisis that my family and country have been experiencing over the last decade. Even though I lived and grew up there, I didn’t have any awareness or knowledge about the health impact of air pollution. When it came to my attention through a protest in Mongolia a few years back, the more I learned, I felt that I shouldn’t sit still and instead, actually do something.

Breathe Mongolia takes stance at a peaceful rally in New York. Photo courtesy of Breathe Mongolia.

My family members who were normally healthy were getting hospitalized due to pneumonia. It was alarming and it opened my eyes. I was worried about my family and the Mongolian community. Pneumonia is the number two killer of children under five in my country. The rates of lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke have all been rising over the past decade or so.

The pollution in our capital city of Ulaanbataar, which only has 1.5 million residents, can be five times worse than Beijing, even as bad as major cities in India or Bangladesh. That’s ridiculous because we have only 3 million people in total. We breathe that kind of air and produce that much pollution even though our population is so small. Mongolia is not that industrialized or crowded.

I wanted to raise awareness about this issue because people just didn’t care or know enough about it enough so I started peaceful protests in New York City’s Times Square. I bought World War two masks from an old army store and put on my traditional Mongolian clothes, and posted photos to my Facebook.

Breathe Mongolia’s team is global and is from 10 different countries. Photo courtesy of Breathe Mongolia.

Kr: How did Breathe Mongolia emerge from the protests?

AT: The idea was to communicate the seriousness of the issue so that hopefully, even those who are living outside Mongolia will care and contribute to solutions.

That Facebook post I shared was pretty shocking. The image was slightly disturbing because I was wearing this blue robe holding a silver bowl, which is typically meant to welcome somebody to Mongolia as a sign of respect, while also wearing the old gas masks.

When people started talking about it, I decided to hold another demonstration and more people came from all over, and more than a dozen of us got together at Columbus Circle in New York City. We livestreamed our march from Columbus Circle into Times Square. We were carrying our traditional flag, and everyone was wearing gas masks. Over 500,000 people watched it, and lots of people shared it.

As a result, many Mongolians, and even non-Mongolians, reached out to me and said, ‘We want to be part of this revolution. We love our country, we love our people. Let’s do something.’

At first, we just made a Facebook page to raise awareness about this issue, to share some stats and news. But then we realized, that’s not enough and we need to do more than that. In 2019, we officially registered as a non-profit in the US. Our team is global and is from 10 different countries. They’re all volunteers–some are students and some have a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry some more. Some are my colleagues from IBM who’ve never been to Mongolia. They live in India, but they want to be part of the solution.

Here is a map detailing the air quality zones in Mongolia. Photo courtesy of Breathe Mongolia.

Kr: So what was contributing to Mongolia’s terrible air pollution?

AT: It is a symptom of developmental challenges. Currently, half of Mongolia’s population lives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, while the capital’s land is just 0.4% of our entire territory. So can you imagine half of China living in Beijing? It’s ridiculous, right?

We have such a high concentration in the capital because we’re a developing country. There are not enough opportunities in the countryside. Even when our GDP was rising almost 10 years ago due to the mining boom, that economic growth was not distributed. It wasn’t used for education or healthcare, so even though our GDP was rising, our people were still poor and without basic necessities.

All our major universities are in Ulanbataar, so people in the countryside come for either work or education. They come to the capital city looking for better opportunities. Climate change and extreme weather have hurt Mongolian livestock, which was traditionally the foundation of our nomadic rural people’s livelihood.

Ulaanbaatar was designed to house 500,000 people in the Soviet era, so many who come to the city are not connected to central infrastructure. They rely on the cheapest form of heating to stave off the eight-month winter: burning coal.

This picture was taken from an advantage point also known as Zaisan Monument, which shows Ulaanbaatar city, pollution and the beautiful valley that Ulaanbaatar is in. Courtesy of Tengis Galamez.

Kr: What successes has Breathe Mongolia managed in the short time since its inception?

AT: First of all, we want to educate people and empower them with science-based and fact-based information, so they can make life decisions for themselves. For example, we built the air pollution map, which is very interactive, and available in both English and Mongolian. We are constantly adding features to it, with the hope that these digital tools and resources can empower people to take action.

Next, we are supporting collaboration and fostering collaboration. We worked with UNICEF  to install additional sensors around the country because pollution is not just a problem in the capital city problem. People everywhere are burning coal. We want to start adding sensors all around the country, so people can see how bad the problem is, and what they can do about it. We want all these different stakeholders like the World Bank, UNICEF, the government of Mongolia, all small and big international nonprofits, and private sector players to work together.

Thirdly, we monitor the situation. We work with investigative journalists to monitor their quality independently because the government air pollution sensors were showing very different readings, sometimes showing the seriousness as 50% below the reality. After investigating and running independent monitoring, we realized that the formula was different, and published our findings. We want to train people to hold our decision-makers to account, and provide transparency to everyone.


AJ Cortese


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