Mongolia has 29 primary watersheds, which are divided between the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Central Asian Internal Basins (CAIB). The CAIB in southern and western Mongolia covers 68 percent of the country, does not drain into an ocean, occupies much of the arid Gobi Desert and hence has few rivers. It is home to 78 percent of Mongolia’s wetlands although it has limited groundwater resources.
Head of the River Basin Management Division of the Ministry of Environment, Green Development, and Tourism D.Chandmani goes in depth about challenges in the CAIB in the interview below.
Despite having scarce water resources, the CAIB supplies water to large mining companies. How do you manage the water in this area?
People often ask if a river basin management division is needed in a place that hardly has any water resources. This might seem like a good point but it’s actually the opposite. Water related issues in the Gobi Desert are much more urgent than water issues in Khangai Mountain region. The Gobi Desert, which is famous for its rare ecosystem, is home to Saiga antelopes, leopards, Gobi bears, Mongolian wild ass, and wild camel, which are all listed in the Red Book of Mongolia.
Water management plays an important role in protecting endangered animals and plants there. Even if it’s little, we must pay attention and protect the existing oasis, hot springs, springs, lakes, and ponds in this region. Hardly anyone settled in the Gobi Desert until mining and tourism companies started operating there.
Water is the first thing you need for mining operations. An Australian man claimed that he had discovered “a vast gold-bearing reef in Central Australia” 100 years ago. Back then, tons of people went to the desert in search of gold mines but ultimately returned to the “civilization” due to lack of water. It had turned into a war for water that killed many. The Gobi Desert is drawing closer to the same kind of war which took place in Australia – a war not for the sake of finding gold, copper, coal or iron ore but for water.
…Very soon, from around 2025, Mongolia will face a shortage of water according to our research. So I urge the state to launch a better strategy for the use of natural resources and conservation of water…
How many active mining companies are there in the Gobi Desert?
The Nariin Sukhait or Ovoot Tolgoi mining complex is situated in the CAIB. Five or six companies are operating at the complex. Gold resources is abundant in the southern parts of Bayankhongor Province. In general, the majority of natural resources in Mongolia are in the Gobi Desert. Hence, many ninja miners, people who digs small unauthorized mines or pans dirt for gold, gather in the desert, as well as near large mining companies.
Besides the CAIB, the Gobi is divided into three river basins: Galba-Uush, Doloodiin, and East Gobi basins. Companies mining at these three basins with abundant resources draw water from underground. Underground water is as valuable as gold and copper because it takes at least 10,000 to 30,000 years or even one million years to replenish. Most importantly, the lack of gold will not cause a disaster, but the lack of water will end lives and life on Earth will cease to exist. Animals and plants are more important than mining.
According to our research, Mongolia will face a serious shortage of water starting from 2025. Water consumption is expected to exceed available water resources by 2030, so we must use water more wisely. Lately, a rumor about increasing exploration licenses by 30 to 40 percent has been floating. If it’s true, these licenses will soon become permits to mine and use natural resources, therefore increasing mining activities. This is not a good environmental policy.
How long is the underground water resources in the Gobi Desert expected to last?
The Oyu Tolgoi mine alone uses approximately 15 cubic meters of underground water, for which they pay around 16 billion MNT. Undoubtedly, this money contributes to the development of the nation to some extent. However, the main problem lies in the fact that the government is neglecting the correct consumption of natural resources, which should be the first priority and not focusing on the conservation of water. They think it is okay as long as they get money for it.
Most of the strategically significant deposits of Mongolia are located in the Gobi Desert. It isn’t entirely wrong to make use of these deposits to drive the economic growth of the nation. However, the government needs to remember that the access to water will gradually become difficult. Very soon, from around 2025, Mongolia will face a shortage of water according to our research. So I urge the state to launch a better strategy for the use of natural resources and conservation of water.
Experts recommend reusing water as the first countermeasure to prevent water shortage. Are companies reusing water in the CAIB?
Fresh underwater should be conserved as much as possible. Right now, it’s being used extravagantly. This applies to daily use and agriculture aside from mining. The tourism sector is beginning to grow in the Gobi region. Everyone who travels there will need to eat and shower, so tourist camps will need to draw more underground water. Local residents, tourism camps, and mining companies all need to start reusing water.
It’s possible to completely reuse the water used for mining operations. Another countermeasure for water shortage is to build dams, water reservoirs, and hydroelectric power plants. Practically every river and other surface runoffs flow out of the country because the Mongolian is situated at a high elevation. We need to build a hydroelectric power plant at large rivers such as Selenge and Orkhon Rivers and transport generated water to the Gobi region where strategically important deposits are centralized. This will become a huge stimulus for rapidly developing the nation.
We need to increase the availability of resources domestically. The Russians and environmental NGOs often disapprove of this type of initiative. For example, they are against creating an artificial lake using water harvested from precipitation. All developed countries do this so why can’t we? Japan and Korea have up to 3,000 artificial lakes. Japan even built an underground reservoir to prevent its fresh underground water from leaking into the ocean. Yet, our nation is immediately pumping underground water to use it for mining operations.
Do mining companies in Mongolia reuse water?
Large companies such as Oyu Tolgoi LLC and Energy Resources Corporation have started reusing water. Energy Resources Corporation stores 28,000 cubic meters of water in two tanks, uses the water to clean coal and reuses 90 to 95 percent of the water. Unfortunately, only few companies work this way. We could save so much water if everyone reused water.
Obviously, this costs quite a bit. Apparently, Energy Resources Corporation bought its water reuse system for over two million USD. The state could support companies interested in installing water reuse systems by easing import tax for these technologies. On the other hand, the state needs a mechanism to hold entities wasting water accountable.
What have you been doing to resolve financial problems of the River Basin Management Division?
Like I mentioned before, mining companies will run out of water resources by 2025 due to wasteful consumption. This is based on research. We can’t be careless with water issues. We’re taking measures to monitor, control and test the underground water to provide a reliable source of information. We will open around 2,000 underground water control centers in the future. Until then, we need to keep updating data and evaluation of underground water through our existing centers. The Australian government provided financial assistance to support a project to create an underground water control network. We’re planning to ask donor organizations and governments of some countries to assist our work in this way. We don’t have the capacity to fund our projects ourselves, regularly check up on control centers, and increase equipment due to economic difficulties.
…We will open around 2,000 underground water control centers in the future. Until then, we need to keep updating data and evaluation of underground water through our existing centers…
It must be quite hard to regularly go around the vast CAIB to update data on the water situation. What does the River Basin Management Division do as part of its regular rounds across the CAIB?
In the last three years, our staff has gone around the CAIB around 10 times, traveling more than 15,000 kilometers in total. The field survey alone took us six months to complete. As part of the field survey, we mapped every natural and man-made body of water, including springs, ponds, and wells.
We not only counted and mapped these water resources but also made recommendations to local authorities on ways to conserve them. For instance, we found 5,149 wells and input their data into the general database. This data is still incomplete because these are the wells that we found so far. We’ve mapped 6,600 places with water, including 1,244 springs, 19 hot springs, 75 ponds, and 44 water reservoirs.