Guest Post by Michelle Tolson
Looking Past Oyu Tolgoi to the Southern Gobi’s Water Shortage
Of late, Mongolian media has been obsessively focusing on the investment agreement between Oyu Tolgoi and the Mongolian government. Little attention is paid to the effect that the mine is having on locals in Omnogovi region, for good or ill. Foreign media also seems to largely focus on the investment aspect of Oyu Tolgoi, monitoring how this affects other foreign investment opportunities. Few foreign media publications delve into the environmental impact and the effect on herders in the region, but when they do, like Mongolian media, they scrutinize Oyu Tolgoi rather than Tavan Tolgoi and the mining situation overall. Though negative articles about Oyu Tolgoi seem to dominate local media, Tavan Tolgoi has escaped this scrutiny relatively unscathed.
The World Bank published a water assessment in 2010 which provided a breakdown of the mining industry’s impact on water resources in the Southern Gobi Region, using data from the Dundgovi, Dornogivi, and Omnogovi. The report listed the livestock population and their water use contrasted with mining operations’ water use in relation to known water sources. The situation is potentially dire—mentioned discretely in one paragraph on p. 35—that the current water resources in the Southern Gobi region have an expected life span of 10-12 years, taking into consideration the abundant mining licenses, growing population and limited current knowledge of water resources in the area. For example in 2005, water use was estimated at 85,000 meters cubed (m3)/day but in 2020 it could rise to 425,000. The water usage for people (rural and urban) is estimated at 10,000 cubic meters per day (m3/day)—a relatively small amount. Taking into consideration the livestock of the region, the usage increases. The study estimated that the entire region has approximately 3.8 million head of livestock comprised of 120,000 camels, 260,000 horses, 100,000 cows, and 3.4 million sheep and goats. Camels consume an estimated average of 45 liters of water a day, while horses consume 35 L/day, cows 35 L/day and sheep-goats consume 4 L/day. This comes to a total of 31,600 cubed meters a day for the combined total of livestock in the Southern Gobo region. However, the two main mining sites’ water use (and this would represent the construction phase) is each double the amount of all the livestock on the three Gobi aimags. The World Bank report found Tavan Tolgoi topped the charts at 76,000 meters cubed (m3) of daily water usage for 2010 taken from groundwater resources, while Oyu Tolgoi used 67,000 cubed meters taken from ground water resources. There are also several smaller mines gearing up which will further impact the situation.
Similar to Ulaanbaatar, the soums and aimags in the Southern Gobi region have experienced a population boom, stressing limited infrastructure. The World Bank report notes population growth in the Dornogovi and Omnogovi provinces “has followed the national trend. Between 1985 and 2004, the human population in 13 soums of these two aimags increased 53 percent, from 41,072 to 62,735 persons.” Most soums in the Southern Gobi region utilize water kiosks, much as ger districts dwellers do in Ulaanbaatar.
This migration has been influenced by the climatic changes which have been making the herding livelihood more difficult. The UNDP action plan report for 2012-2016 noted the extreme environmental degradation on the steppes caused from overgrazing and higher rates of carbon in the air from the massive livestock population which grew beyond the capacity of the land when limits on herd sizes were abolished in post Soviet years. Overgrazing has contributed to climate changes which have resulted in lower levels of rainfall and the reduction of the grasslands. About 70 percent of the country is experiencing desertification. Mining meanwhile has been booming and filling in the employment gap, further drawing people to the urban areas.
The World Bank report’s intended audience 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 Gobi region. This has largely been ignored by the media—both foreign and local—but has been picked up by environmental NGOs and those advocating for herders’ rights such as OT Watch. OT Watch has ironically linked the river diversion initiative to the Oyu Tolgoi mine, though the company does not wish to participate in this method, preferring to utilize a saline aquifer treated with a water purifier to supply the water needs for both mining and their staff. Though the feasibility study is still being conducted on the river diversion project, the Ministry said the project “urgently” needed to be implemented for those living in the growing soums and aimags, including the herders. They see this as a renewable resource. The Herlen River, which was also part of the feasibility study, will not be utilized, but the Orkhon River is slated to be, according the Ministry. Mark Newby, the Water Resources Principal Advisor to Oyu Tolgoi, said the company is using their technology to find additional underground water resources to addressing the growing needs of the nearby soums and aimags, which are expected to expand in population when the mine becomes operational. However, Oyu Tolgoi’s water explorations have been viewed with mistrust according to Sara Jackson, who has conducted focus groups with the herders in the South Gobi for the past few summers as part of her PhD dissertation research on how herders are impacted by the mining boom. She previously wrote a brief guest post on this blog about the neglected needs of the herders. By Skype interview she told me that herders view Oyu Tolgoi’s further water explorations as proof that the company does “not even know where their water is coming from.”
The Tavan Tolgoi operation does not have a saline aquifer with a water purifier at its disposal and has limited water resource options. There is only a nearby fresh water lake, known as Balgas or the river diversion project to cover the mining needs and those of its workers. A previous story published by the UB Post— “Balgas Lake’s Limited Lifespan,” printed edition June 1, 2012—noted the lake, if used as a water source, would only last until 2020. According to the Ministry of Environment, the Lake Balgas issue is still being discussed and unfortunately is still a possibility—initially at least—until other sources for water are located but is not intended to be a long term solution. However, the river diversion project is still being researched and could take some time.
The recent conference in mid-October titled “Mining and Human Rights” illustrated the conflict in needs between locals in the Gobi and the needs of the rest of the nation. A panel spoke on the problems in mining, which consisted of S. Oyun, the Minister of Environment and Green Development, Chandmani Dagva, Governor of the Dundgovi, a representative of the Special Inspection Agency and Mr. Ganbold Duvchigdamba, former herder and famous environmental activist. The audience took part and asked questions. Many herders came up. One herder said he represented 4,000 people in his soum and he asked how they were supposed to live with five mines. There were four already and another was set to go operational. In contrast, the governor of the Dundgovi spoke of his inability to regulate the number of mining licenses issued and how his aimag had been covered up to 50 percent by mining licenses at one time which had been reducing over time through hard work. He said what he saw that the local governments’ main problem was a lack of power, as the central government made the decision to issue mining licenses.
The true heart of the debate on mining seems to rest on the development needs the country versus the needs of the herders and locals in the Gobi. The overall population of the Southern Gobi region is listed is at just 150,000 by the World Bank report, compared to the rest of the nation. With the central government’s focus on the returns from mining, this conflict looks likely to continue but by looking past a foreign company as the source of the problem and looking at the bigger picture—which is the limited water resources , hopefully this critical issue can be addressed with the help of foreign companies’ technology. The World Bank report noted that most present day water surveys are being carried out by foreign companies and researchers given the limited technology of the government.
About Michelle Tolson
Michelle Tolson, MSc, studied community development at the London School of Economics and Political Science and brings a background in gender with a human rights frame work to her writing. She has worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia. As a journalist, she has contributed to the Phnom Penh Post (Cambodia), Women’s International Perspective (U.S.), the Global Post (U.S.), Women’s News Network (U.S.), Women’s Media Center (U.S.) and the UB Post of Mongol News Group (Mongolia).