Mongolian researcher uses satellite data to study groundwater resources


Mongol News interviewed Dr. N.Buyankhishig, vice-principal of the School of Geology and Mining at Mongolian University of Science and Technology. She used satellite information to research changes to groundwater levels. She conducted the research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) last year.

N.Buyankhishig spoke about the global use of information provided by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) Mission satellites and how Mongolians can conduct research using that information for other areas of study.

Water research conducted using a satellite sounds interesting. Has this kind of study been done in Mongolia before?

While I was working at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute of CAS, I was surprised to see students researching water supply using satellite information.

At that time, water research based on satellite information was a whole new concept to me. After asking people and exchanging experiences, I decided to study the change in groundwater supplies in Mongolia.

NASA’s website has lots of unprocessed information, so anyone can conduct research using it. 

Can you talk about the GRACE satellites?

NASA and the German Aerospace Center launched Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) in 2002 to map variations in Earth’s gravitational field.

The project consists of two satellites which fly 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from Earth 220 with kilometers (137 miles) in between each other.

GRACE’s information is widely used to study Earth’s hydrosphere, geology, and atmosphere. Because Mongolia has a big, wide area and aggregate geological conditions, it costs a lot to monitor groundwater.

However, we get the chance to monitor the changes in groundwater supplies by using satellite data. 

Has Mongolia’s underwater supply been studied before? 

Alexander Ivanov, a scientist from the USSR, first studied groundwater supplies within Mongolian borders in 1958.

Most recently, N.Jadambaa and G.Tserenjav determined that the groundwater supply that could be used for pastures around economic zones was 10.79 cubic meters in 2003. 

You did your research in China. Do young scientists in Mongolia have the opportunity to do similar work? 

Because you process so much information, you need a powerful computer, and a lot depends on the scientist’s abilities as well.

We have the personnel. If we can spark their interest, they learn very fast. I found it interesting that the Chinese graduate students have very specific research topics, such as the change in groundwater supply or drought studies and such.

Also, students have to read all work related to the GRACE satellites. You consume so much information and knowledge from scientific papers. 

Lots of people talk about our deteriorating water resources. How are they in reality? 

It looks like Mongolia has a big water supply. This includes ice, frozen rivers, and lakes. Eighty percent of the total water supply comes from lakes. People only use groundwater supplies for drinking water. Groundwater makes up only two percent of the total water supply.

Because Mongolia has a small population in a big territory, the water supply is enough for now. Everything depends on how we use the water supply we have. The main water consumers are factories and mining companies. 

In a conference with South Korean scientists I heard your speech about groundwater management. What did they advise?

 They suggested we do a better job on groundwater monitoring, or supervision. Initially, we have to find the chemical components and their levels through water samples.

Our public says our water supply and quality has deteriorated, without any factual basis. When we do a quality study we take water samples, analyze them, and then draw conclusions.

First, we have to study the water’s components, its quality and origins. This kind of study costs a lot, though. 

We don’t know how to reuse water yet. Is this one of the factors that has decreased water supplies?

 We have this “why save greywater” mentality. Mongolians don’t understand that we have to use the natural supply very sparingly and carefully. We have improved over the years though. I think we finally understand that water supplies can be depleted (laughs).

Foreign students come and are shocked to see we’re using drinking water to flush toilets. We use five liters of water with each flush. 

What should we do to make people understand the value of water? Some say we should raise the price. 

Things often lose their value when they’re cheap. But we can’t raise the prices. Some foreign countries have varying water prices. They raise the water prices for high-income households and then supply the poor with cheaper water.

Mongolia needs this flexible policy, and I think we need to educate the public from a young age – like from kindergarten and elementary school, about the value of water. 

The Tuul River is being polluted by the water treatment facility. What are your views on this?

It is true that the Tuul River is being polluted because of the water treatment facility. I don’t know much, as I haven’t conducted quality research in that field. But one facility cannot handle a metropolitan city.

There are many polluters apart from the water treatment facility. Groundwater gets replenished from runoff from elevated ground, but we have lots of ger households in those areas.

We need to place ger households and tanneries in places where they cannot affect the groundwater.

 Because the Tuul River is so polluted, some households are using water from branching streams. Is there a difference between branch water and river water?

Branch water is when groundwater comes to the surface. Rivers and groundwater are related. We can identify water’s purity by looking at the elevation of the land, the soil, and rock specifics of the area.

But no one in Mongolia has studied the impact of water with subtleties. Sometimes, when we analyze water samples that some people call “good”, we get bad results.

You need to have you drinking water analyzed very well. 

How clean is the water from Abyssinian wells?

We seem to think our water is pure when a3 well is located next to the toilet. There’s no way that water will be different if we only dig two separate holes. We use the toilet and then drink water from the well.

They have the same environment, and if there’s an infiltration zone somewhere in between, however deep your toilet is, dirty water will come into the well. And it’s not only your toilet’s water that’s getting in the well.

Depending on the location and hydro geological conditions, there are ways that water can escape from the toilet into the well. If your house is on a foothill, you’re probably drinking the contaminants from all the households above you. 

People in apartments always use filtered water. Is that safe?

Humans are a product of nature. We can’t use filtered water all the time. If you use the right amount, anything can be healthy, but if there’s a shortage, it could result in disease. Because we all have different bodies, it fits for some, but it’s not good for others.

In the summer, we have to travel to the countryside and drink water from nature. I think the reason diseases start young is due to water and the environment.


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Posted by on Jul 30 2015. Filed under Prime Interview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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