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Solving the Gobi’s Water Problem

Part Two,

By Michelle Tolson

“The estimated current water demand is in the order of 80,000 m3/day and will increase to 400,000–450,000 m3/day in 2020. These figures lead to the conclusion that the groundwater potential for the SGR as a whole is sufficient to cover the water demands in the next 10–12 years. –Mongolia: Ground Water Assessment in the South Gobi Region”—the World Bank, 2010
During the recent conference titled “Mining and Human Rights,” S. Oyun of the Ministry of Environment and Green Development gave an overview of the development problems connected with mining that affect Mongolia. She stated the country needs a “planned design in order to observe the capacity of the environment. In 1990, it was a harsh transition.

“We were closing our eyes, trying not to see the issue. Now we are working with the private sector. If the industry is not good for the environment, we should not support such a project.” This is a difficult task as Mongolia needs mining to develop and mining companies need water. The people that work for the mines need water and the towns that develop near the mines also need water. The Gobi urban areas, albeit small, are developing in a similar way to Ulaanbaatar as the aimags and soums have also experienced population explosions as people move from the countryside to the towns in search of work. These areas are growing beyond their infrastructure and water is integral to this issue.
The 2010 World Bank report notes: “Before the 1990s many investigations were carried out by the Department of Geology and Mining, other government agencies, and universities, often by mixed teams of Russian and Mongolian scientists. This resource knowledge is still available through reports and through the Mongolian experts. However, the number of investigations has dropped in the last decades because of limitations in financial and personnel capacity. The most recent groundwater investigations in the Gobi Region for the mining industry have been financed by the private sector and carried out by joint teams of Mongolian and international consultants.”
One such private sector would be Oyu Tolgoi, which began its water explorations back in 2003. Oyu Tolgoi intends to be self-sustaining for its water needs, utilizing a saline aquifer discovered by the company in 2003. The Water Authority of Mongolia has given the company permission to use less than 20 percent on the aquifer according to Mark Newby, Oyu Tolgoi’s Water Resources Principal Water. The company has built a pipeline to the aquifer which was completed in August of this year. The water purifier has also been completed and is going through its commissioning period. The aquifer’s water will go through a “multi-media filter, activated carbon filter, micro-filter, reverse osmosis, UV sterilized, ozone disinfected and then [be] bottled in five gallon containers in a filtered clean air room,” said Newby.
Much awareness has been focused on Oyu Tolgoi, one of the two main mines about to go operational, but less attention is placed on Tavan Tolgoi, the 2nd largest mine. Oyu Tolgoi is majority-owned by Australian Rio Tinto and Canadian Ivanhoe, while the Mongolian government holds a minority stake. Tavan Tolgoi on the other hand is majority-owned by the government with 49 percent expected to go to foreign companies such as US Peabody.
According to a report by UNESCAP (“Energy Security and Water Resources”) which was retrieved online in mid-October, Lake Balgas (also known as the Red Lake) nearby has been slated to initially supply the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine with water. Though the report appears to no longer available online (as of October 26, 2012), this issue has also been reported by local media. A media report from January of 2012—“Umnugobi [Omnogovi] Residents Face Water Issues”—stated “residents have decided to send a petition to the Mongol Government asking that water from Balgasiin Ulaan Nuur not be used for mining activity. Umnugobi residents say they cannot live without water, even if they have luxury apartments and cars. They are gathering signatures for the petition to protect the lake.” According to another local media report published February of 2012 (“National Security Council discusses Gobi region water issues”) the president had visited the South Gobi region and, based on residents concerns “asked the NSC officials to find other water sources, prepare technical and economic plans for the Orkhon-Gobi and Kherlen-Gobi projects, and determine the feasibility of the projects.”
These reports raise two issues: 1) the status of the fresh water Lake Balgas (Red Lake) and 2) that of two rivers—Orkhon River and Kherlen River.
Sara Jackson, a researcher who has been working with herders in the Gobi for a few years now as part of her PhD and studying the impact mining has had on their livelihoods said: “The government is looking into diverting the Orkhon River. It is in part for Tavan Tolgoi, and other mines—the government [is] conducting a feasibility study right now. And that would be for all of the mines down there. If you look at the map at the mining leases, there are all sorts of leases down there. So they are going to need a lot of water down there. So basically the government is arguing that with climate change because the glaciers are melting, so the river will be flooding more and [they say] “we’ll use that extra flood water for mining.” I’ve been to a number of conferences where Mongolian scientists talk about [this issue]. There is this interesting thing going on with water where a lot of water resources are drying up, especially in the Gobi, sort of normal rivers, just any sort of surface water but at the same time we are seeing some rivers increasing their flow because we are seeing an increase of [global warming]. So climate change is seen as a way to that they can deal with this sort of lack of water. But to me that seems just really temporary. Again, I am not a hydrologist so I don’t know all the details about it though to me it seems like a temporary solution. Oyu Tolgoi doesn’t want to participate in that so they just want to continue research on aquifers, is basically their plan. The Gobi used to be an ocean, so….”
Oyu Tolgoi has declined to take part in the river diversion feasibility study. When asked why at a recent open house for the Environmental Social Impact Assessment [ESIA], Newby carefully stated “We are very respectful of national and regional government initiatives. We have done our investigation for water resources and have identified a viable source of water for the project.” Spoken like a scientist who also is required to be a resource diplomat, Newby understands the pressures the government faces in bringing the infrastructure up to speed with the booming Gobi region.
Though OT Watch NGO, an industry watch dog, has issued press releases warning of the water issue in the Gobi—and tying Oyu Tolgoi to these concerns—the average Mongolian citizen, when queried, seems largely unaware of the government’s river diversion project.
During the recent conference titled “Mining and Human Rights,” the UB Post asked S. Oyun, Minister of Environment and Green Development, to comment on the river diversion project. She replied that her Ministry needed more time to research the proposed questions. The following week the UB Post met the Director Enkhat of the Ministry of Environment and Green Development to discuss this issue. The interview included G. Erdenechbayasgalan, Officer of Environment and Natural Resources and Saran Tse Tseg, Officer in charge of the ESIA for Mining Projects, who both helped with translations and contributed to the information. Initially reluctant to discuss the river diversion, the team finally clarified.
“The Kherlen Gobi project will not be implemented, but Orkhon River, yes. There is an urgent need to implement this project. … It is a renewable resource, [and has] a recharge rate. “
When asked about the factors contributing to this decision, the Ministry explained that due to the increase in the population in the aimags and soums from the mining projects there is a need for more water resources. “But [the] first priority is for the drinking water supply for locals, herders, including mining workers. The hardness of this water in the Gobi, it is very high. The mineralization [level], it doesn’t pass [tests]. There is a need to additionally treat this water, for the household use.”
“We are just waiting for the technical economic assessment, for the study to be developed. Once it is developed, we are waiting for it to be developed [in order] to be initiated, the financial parts.”
Lake Balgas is also on the discussion table but according to the Ministry is not currently being used for mining. Yet it might be used on a temporary basis until other water sources are located. “Well in the first years…it is in the discussions. To use the Lake for Tavan Tolgoi in the first years but it is still in the discussions. It hasn’t been decided. We still need the professional statement [research] from the Water Authority. The decision has not been made yet.” The Ministry explained that drinkable fresh water sources such as Lake Balgas, which are not saline, are designated as “locally protected.”
However, the human rights and mining conference had uncovered the issue of local protection lacking political power compared to the central government in the case of the governor of the Dundgovi aimag wishing to halt the issuance of mining licenses. Yet the Ministry’s perspective was that local governments, in the case of the Omnogovi aimag at least, do have power but lack more in “accountability.” Therefore the issue of local protection seems likely to be a concern for environmental and local activists seeking to protect Lake Balgas.
In regards to the river diversion project, the Ministry said “The water in the aquifers does not meet the standard requirements for drinking water. It is for this reason that we are planning this step, the river diversion project, for the herders for drinking water and second for the mining [workers].”
Director Enhkat said via translation: “I just want to add something because the herders are complaining about the overuse of the ground water. There is no relationship because what they are using, the layer of water is in a different layer and there is no relationship to what the mining companies are using, it goes deeper [mining companies’ water source]. Different levels and there is no connection to the recharge of the resource.”
The communication problems the Ministry faces with herders is similar to those that the Oyu Tolgoi project faces. According to herders, the wells have lowered and water is harder to come by. This issue was raised repeatedly at the human rights conference by both herders and their representatives in the Southern Gobi area.
The UB Post asked Newby about this problem and his research had revealed that, overall, rain in the Gobi had decreased for two summers as a result of climate changes affecting the country, however last summer did offer relief from the draught and had recharged the renewable water tables and herder wells. These wells access water at a more shallow level than the aquifers—both drinkable and saline. To address herders’ concerns, a team from Oyu Tolgoi had reconstructed about 20 nearby wells for several herder families, observing that age and dust had reduced their effectiveness.
The Ministry also discussed the dust issue. “There is a comment from the herders that there is soil in the main wells [dust]. And they think this is due to the mining explorations from mining use. And the Water Authority professionals say that the soil water is not connected that there is no scientific research [to back this up]. ”
Dust and mining has been an ongoing issue according to the herders at the mining conference—which they say is caused by mining trucks ferrying loads across the Gobi. Researcher Sara Jackson mentioned this as a common complaint from herders as well.
The Ministry of Environment and Green Development is aware of the herders’ complaints and wants to work with them. As of this interview, the Ministry had not been approached by the local NGOs to address these concerns (except for being sent documents), nor had they been approached by another journalist. When hearing about Sara Jackson’s research project, they expressed both curiosity and a desire to work with her, comparing research. “I hope that the reason that she doing the research is that she is trying to help build a good bridge between the herders and the government. That is a good reason to introduce us. The reason that I am saying this is that maybe we can compare our results with her results. To know what is different, that we can take from her report,” said Director Enkhat via a translator.
Given the edge foreign companies have in technology coupled with the World Bank’s recommendation for further research on water resources, the UB Post asked Newby if Oyu Tolgoi shared their findings with the Mongolian government. Newby explained that he agrees with the World Bank and thinks more research “would be a good back-up (or alternative, or compliment) to the river transfer project.” He also relayed that Oyu Tolgoi does share their research as part of their agreement with the Water Authority and are currently researching additional water sources to address population growth spurred by the mining industry in the region such as Khanbogd, Bayan Ovoo and Dalanzadgad.
Water in the Gobi is a significant issue impacted by ongoing communication problems—in addition to the infrastructure issues. The Ministry referred to a Mongolian proverb during the interview—“Seeing once is better than 1000 times hearing.” Listening to rumors without meeting face to face to learn the facts does not help the problems facing the Gobi.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=1635

Posted by on Oct 29 2012. Filed under Community. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Solving the Gobi’s Water Problem”

  1. [...] Solving the Gobi's Water Problem Much awareness has been focused on Oyu Tolgoi, one of the two main mines about to go operational, but less attention is placed on Tavan Tolgoi, the 2nd largest mine. Oyu Tolgoi is majority-owned by Australian Rio Tinto and Canadian Ivanhoe, while the … Read more on UB Post [...]

  2. [...] was stakeholders of the government of Mongolia.  In order to learn what plans are in the works, I interviewed the Ministry of Environment and Green Development regarding a feasibility study on diverting the River Orkhon by pipeline conveyance to the Southern [...]

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