Challengin Mongolia’s neglect of the ‘unseen’

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Mongolians have a peculiar habit of ignoring the “unseen” and putting things off until the last minute. This habit can be observed in the way the Mongolian state and public manage environmental problems.

Every winter, politicians, lawmakers, and the public make a ruckus about air pollution, but the passion for eliminating the problem dies out with the arrival of summer, when the air pollution decreases and water and soil problems are the primary issues of public concern. After that, it’s turning to address issues related to crop harvests, natural disasters, and winter preparation, and then, we’re back to air pollution.  It’s a tedious cycle that will not end unless sustainable action is taken.

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No matter how often or how regularly these problems are discussed, we keep returning to them because they’re that important and affect everyone, especially issues related to water. The government has taken various measures to improve the conservation of clean water, a prime necessity of life, for years. Despite the continued endeavors, Mongolia is still facing struggles in preventing water pollution and conserving fresh water, as it is a landlocked country with many mining companies.

To tackle water pollution, authorities have surveyed river basins, ordered companies to avoid pollution near bodies of water, and suspended the operations of companies that were polluting. However, companies return to environmentally harmful operations after a while due to a lack of supervision and regulation.

For instance, the Save Our Queen Tuul River National Movement submitted a letter to the state in April 2016, demanding that the state cancel licenses allowing mineral exploration along the Tuul River, as well as the illegal mining operations conducted along the river. Back then, environmentalists claimed that industrial waste from factories built along the river played a major role in the river’s drop in water level. The Ulaanbaatar Department of Environment and Green Development said they inspected the area but didn’t find any problems.

“Operations that might harm the environment haven’t been carried out in these areas,” Head of the Ulaanbaatar Department of Environment and Green Development Kh.Marat responded a year ago. “The companies with mining licenses are exploring within the basin, not in safety zones. They are all located 200 meters from bodies of water. There isn’t a company exploring within 200 meters.”

A year later, Mayor S.Batbold and his advisors investigated these mining companies and found that many of them were leaving mining-affected areas unattended and without conducting rehabilitation work. On March 29, the Mayor revoked the licenses of companies mining near river basins without an environmental rehabilitation plan. He also ordered a cease on the issuance of permits to explore, excavate, and process minerals near river basins, and said, “We will suspend the operations of active companies step by step. We will create only healthy living conditions for the residents of the capital.”

A month later, the Save Our Queen Tuul River National Movement made the same demand it made in 2016, for authorities to take action against companies illegally mining near the Tuul River. However, the government didn’t take any action and the activists didn’t pursue the matter further.

This suggests that neither Mongolia’s activists nor the government have the persistence and commitment to see action through to the end of a problem, and that they take action only when they think it’s needed. In other words, people are neglecting problems until they occur and are aggravated.

Moreover, there’s a problem with the Mongolian legal system. Mongolia has so many laws and regulations, and continues to make new ones, but their enforcement has been proven to be poor.

The 2012 Human Rights Report on Mongolia noted that the lack of enforcement of court orders was a problem for the civil judicial system, and local environmental movements have also underscored the need to improve law enforcement in Mongolia.

Let’s take the Law on Water Pollution Fees as an example. This law took effect in 2012, but five years later, lawmakers still haven’t passed regulations to determine how much a company has to pay for causing water pollution and how it should be imposed.

Reportedly, the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism has submitted drafts of regulations three times in the past, but the government has rejected them each time. The ministry has also reported that it is developing amendments to the Law on Water Pollution Fees, as they have found that changes are necessary to improve its implementation and develop related regulations.

A water specialist at the ministry, L.Erdenebulgan, stated, “We’ve been paying special attention to passing regulations required for the Law on Water Pollution Fees since August 2016. A couple of meetings and conferences were held with specialists. As a result, it was concluded that the first thing we need to do is make amendments to the legislation, so the Ministerial Council assigned a working group to develop a draft bill in November 2016.”

“Our proposals were supported during the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Food and Agriculture’s meeting on November 8, 2016. The draft is expected to be discussed during this year’s parliamentary spring session. The draft amendments are ready and now, we’re making necessary calculations,” she said.

L.Erdenebulgan underscored that amendments to the Law on Conflicts, Minerals Law, Law on Water, and Criminal Code will be necessary if the amendments are passed, because Mongolia lacks an accountability system for water polluters.

An accountability system is very important, not only for using collected fines for rehabilitation but also to prevent further pollution to bodies of water. It would also remind people to treat water and other elements of nature with more care.

People in Mongolia need to keep in mind that Mongolia’s water supply is dropping day by day, and that freshwater is becoming harder to find. Various water specialists are recommending crucial tactics that could help preserve freshwater for people and wildlife, but the most important thing is to take action now, rather than waiting for the problem to get worse.

According to Eloise Kendy, a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy, Mongolia is the only place where Central Asian freshwater ecosystems remain reasonably intact.

“Freshwater scientists come from all across Central Asia to Mongolia’s lakes and rivers to understand what their own countries have lost to pollution and over-extraction. My trip there showed me there’s still time to save the region’s last remaining healthy freshwater resources,” she said.

It’s never too late to act. All we need to do to conserve freshwater and resolve other critical issues at hand is to take action now, and see them to the end. Don’t wait for someone else to initiate, act yourself for your own benefit.

 

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