Forum talks of water issues, and hears how to bring it to the Gobi

2020-10-21 11:29

The Mongolian Mining Journal /Sep.2020/

By L. Nomintsetseg

The news of how one herder was shot dead by another in Tsogttsetsii soum, Umnugovi aimag during a dispute on whose livestock had claim to a water source shocked Mongolians into the awareness that scarcity of water could make a killer of a peaceful man. This was in 2019, and in April the next year, Tsetsii Movement, a non-government organization in the aimag, declared that people in the Gobi were “ready to fight” for their right to water – another name for life.

This concern over scarcity of water marked the first Gobi Water – Green Development Research and Innovation Forum held in Dalanzadgad, Umnugovi aimag on September 10. As researchers and members of the aimag parliament talked at the Forum about how depletion of water resources in the Gobi has led to drying up of wells for livestock and a drop in the underground water level for human use, I found in my later interaction with ordinary people that they were glad to get a chance to articulate their concerns and suggest solutions. It is now for those who take decisions and make policy to take note of these. No solution to this chronic problem, now reaching an acute stage, can be found without bringing together researchers, activists, herders and other citizens, and economic entities. What official steps are taken will depend on what the Constitutional Court decides on Dr. D. Basandorj’s application before it to declare Articles 23.2, 23.5, 28.8,9,14, 15 and 16 of the Water Law ultra vires of the Constitution.

Inaugurating the Forum, Ch. Jargalsaikhan, member of the Umnugovi aimag parliament, noted that there was no place where water resources had not been depleted, and this in a country which was always short of water. The Gobi has never had too many underground water sources, and with several of them drying up, the inevitable result would be more desertification. “The ecosystem in the Gobi has always been vulnerable, and climate change has made it even more so, most noticeably in water,” he said. 

Lack of water could lead to the extinction of already endangered mammals and plants in the area, and could make mining unsustainable. Talk about bringing in water from far away began in 2017, but with nothing but plans so far, “citizens, economic entities and Mother Nature – all face a critically uncertain future”, Jargalsaikhan added. 
Ts.Sosorbaram, Advisor on Water Issues to the President, read out a message from Kh.Battulga. The President assured the Forum that its deliberations and suggestions would be carefully considered by the Water Authority before it sends its own recommendations to the Government and parliament. He called for a new water policy and wanted the existing water laws to be amended accordingly.

Among the other points in the President’s message were:

1.    The issue of depleting water resources should be managed urgently, to halt further desertification. Ways must be found to lessen evaporation as well as to increase water resources.
2.    More water should be brought to the Gobi region, by building reservoirs elsewhere and by immediately launching the project to transfer water from distant areas.
3.    Irrigate areas of the Gobi and take other anti-desertification steps such as restricting use of fresh ground water.
4.    Establish facilities for water collection and ensure that 67% of the water used is surface water, the goal set out in the National Water Program. 

R. Seddorj, member of the Umnugovi parliament, gave a presentation on policies and decisions and showed how frequent about-turns affect their effectiveness. For example, in July, 2013 the local parliament passed resolutions to stop use of ground water for mining operations from January 1, 2016, and to work on collecting surface water, establishing floating ponds and introducing new technology on using less water. It also decided to stop from August 1, 2013 grant of fresh prospecting and drilling permissions. The good intentions were allowed to prevail for just 5 months, as the Government in Ulaanbaatar overruled the aimag parliament. Similarly, in 2018, a resolution in the aimag parliament in June, putting a maximum limit on use of water in mines was diluted just five months later, apparently to exempt existing mines from its provisions. This resolution also had a wider scope in that it applied to agriculture and herding also. 

On February 8, 2018, a working group was set up to organize open discussions on water consumption for industrial and mining purposes and how to control it. The group recommended that mining companies should stop using ground water for coal washing and instead use dry technology so that more water is recycled, and also that a maximum limit be placed on use of ground water for mining purposes. It also wanted to prohibit the use of fresh water and called for immediate implementation of the project on collecting surface water and transferring it to areas at a distance. 

In his presentation entitled Water Consumption in the Mining Region and the Urgent Problems Associated with It, L.Batchuluun, another member of the local parliament, showed how mines’ water consumption had increased over the years. In 2019, 31,648,917.40 m3 water was used in mining, 72% of it by Oyu Tolgoi alone, while Tavan Tolgoi took 4%, Energy Resources 7%, MAK 2%, and Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi 4%. Accepting that mining cannot do without a great deal of water, Batchuluun said the only way is to look for technology that would reduce water use. At present, Oyu Tolgoi and Energy Resource recycle 84%-97% of the water they use in their processing plants. Oyu Tolgoi also brings from outside all the potable water used at work and at home by its workers. Energy Resources collects rain and flood water and uses it to keep the coal dust down. It would, of course, be better if technology such as the dry method could be used in processing. 

Boldbaatar, a department head at the Water Authority, made a presentation on the Blue Horse project, which is the umbrella name given to all projects aiming to resolve the Gobi’s water problems. 

There is no underground water in the Gobi, and precipitation is the only source of ground water. Springs and oases serve small pasture areas and a part of human need but ground water deposits are the main source of water. Their total capacity is 264,594.3 m3 per day, and 19 of these deposits (121,246 m3 per day) have mineralized water that could be used for mining operation, including coal washing, processing plants and power plants.  There are 66 fresh water deposits (143,348.3 m3 per day) that would meet the drinking and other household needs of the population in three aimag centers in the region. 

The following are the projects dealing with transfer of water to distant areas:

1.    Kherlen Toonot-Oyu Tolgoi: Water would be carried to the Gobi year-round by adjusting the water flow in the river. Two pumps would put 2000 litres of water per second into two 630-km long pipes with 800-mm diameter.
2.    Kherlen Toonot-Oyu Tolgoi: The reservoir at Red High Mountain would hold 100,000 m3 water. It would require 6 pumps to transfer water from Kherlen Toono Mountain reservoir to Oyu Tolgoi. 
3.    Tuul Gobi: The Erdene Mountain water complex would have a pump station for maintaining the lines of transferring water in the route of Tuul-Mandalgobi-Umnugovi-Tavan Tolgoi-Oyu Tolgoi and a hydropower station.
4.    Orkhon Gobi: Some 730 m3 of water in the Orkhon River can be diverted to a reservoir. The proposed pipe would have a 150mm-200-mm diameter and would be 920 km long, passing through two large cities and 10 soums, and would provide two large mines and 50 farming families with water. 
5.    Orkhon-Ongi-Oyu Tolgoi: A dam at Maikhan Tolgoi would put water into the Ongi River and also into a reservoir on the Orkhon River. It is also planned to establish a hydropower plant with 18-mw capacity. 

Dr. Ts. Sosorbaram, Water Issues Advisor to the President, made some interesting points in his presentation under the name Gobi Water Issues, and Projects and Programs Proposed to be Implemented.  Since 90 percent of the water we consume is from underground water, the goal is to reuse between 70% and 90% of it. It is also necessary to keep fresh water deposits under local protection, so that they would not be used for mining purposes. Mongolia’s water resources are unevenly distributed, with adequate or even ample water in the northern and western parts, while the southern and eastern parts have little of it. Underground water deposits cannot be easily or quickly replenished, and this is why their level is going down. Another factor contributing to their depletion is the high rate of evaporation. The risk of regular drought, and even extensive desertification, is very real. Roughly, surface water is restored within 14 days, but in the case of underground water, this can take 10,000 years. Around 330 m3 of water flows per second from the Selenge River in Mongolia to the Russian Federation and 17 m3 from the Kherlen River to China. Altogether 33 sites on 12 rivers have been identified where dams can be built to store water for transfer elsewhere. 

When the water level in the Orkhon River rises, it can be linked to the Ongi River channel passing through the Khangai Mountains. That in turn will increase the flow of the Ongi River, allowing it to reach and replenish the Red (Ulaan) Lake. It is possible to make a fair estimate of how much water can be transferred to a chosen destination and also select the means of doing it. The Orkhon-Ongi project will see water from the Ulaan Lake reach Oyu Tolgoi through Dalanzadgad. Its Feasibility Study should be ready this year. 
There are almost breathtaking technical challenges in taking the water to the Ongi river channel, as the pipe would have to be laid through a mountain pass. Depending on the route finally chosen, this could be at an elevation of between 1,972 and 2,230 metres from the sea level through a pipe between 51.8 km and 94.5 km long. 

Some preliminary work has been done on the feasibility study of the Kherlen Toono project that would bring water from the Kherlen River to the Gobi region throughout the year. Two pumps would put water into two 800-mm-diameter pipes which would then carry 2000 litres per second for 630 km. 
Water would also be moved year round from Gurt to Oyu Tolgoi via Selenge. It will come from three spots -- the Gurt Bridge on the Selenge River, the meeting point of the Eg and the Selenge Rivers and  Khyalgant. There would be no need for flow adjustment. It is planned to use 6 pumps to put water into two 1500-mm-diameter pipes which would then carry 5000 litres per second for 830 km.  
All this is new for Mongolia. The only thing like these that we have at present is a facility being built by the Construction and Urban Development Ministry to transfer water collected at the Taishir Hydro Power Plant in Gobi Altai aimag to the aimag centre 50 km away. But other countries such as China and Libya have water transferring projects that carry water for a longer way or from hundreds of deeper wells.

In his speech, D. Bat-Erdene, member of Parliament, said, “Our absolute priority is to bring water into the Gobi.” Mining accounts for 90% of the aimag’s economy and more water would be required when processing of raw materials begins on a wider scale. It is thus essential to bring water to the Gobi. Responsible mining also means using ground water more efficiently. “So along with building the pipeline to bring surface water from elsewhere, we should also insist on miners using more grey water,” said Bat-Erdene, and added. “We wish to follow expert opinion when formulating policy and taking decisions, and also to ask NGOs to cooperate with the aimag and other local governments.” 

S.Munkhbayar, Acting Governor of Umnugovi, was not happy with the lack of seriousness in implementation of the resolution stating that a mine would not use more than 100 m3 groundwater per day. The aimag has 5150 drilling spots and wells in concrete enclosures and 400 registered springs. Potable water from 20 sources is reached to 54,500 people through 70 distribution points, and the aimag also provides 52 percent of the water needed in pasture lands. 

Many mining companies use large volumes of ground water, including Oyu Tolgoi and Energy Resources which use 913 and 210 litres per second respectively. Umnugovi has no surface water, so ground water is used for all this. Much more water would be needed as more projects come up, including processing plants and power stations and also large human settlements. 
These were all people at different levels of importance, but I also wished to hear the views of ordinary citizens on water-related issues. They were vocal about their worries. The average rainfall in the last three decades has been significantly less than in the previous 70 years. With the grass drying up, more surface moisture has evaporated faster. The only way the trend can be arrested is by bringing in water from elsewhere to replenish the lost water and they were all waiting eagerly for the day when water from across the country would reach the Gobi, and them. 

Several expressed misgivings that the Balgas Red Lake – it is actually an aquifer -- which the local parliament took under special protection of the state in 2010, could lose its special status. The absence of any official statement is adding to the uncertainty. They were not aware of the Government’s plans to prepare feasibility studies of the Orkhon-Ongi and Kherlen-Toonot projects or of the promises held out by the Blue Horse Project, but I was repeatedly asked about progress of the Kherlen Gobi and Orkhon Gobi projects. 

The Forum ended with the organizers and participants issuing an appeal which called for, among other things 

l    Increased involvement of civil society organizations and citizens in the process of making the water policy and in implementing programmes for Green Development in the Gobi region;
l    Implementation of projects and programmes for improved water supply and irrigation in the Gobi through involvement of the civil society and citizens; 
l    Immediate work to start on a project to save ground water in the Gobi, and to encourage recycling, for example, by more use of grey water; 
l    Support for movements led by civil society and citizens in areas lacking water and where desertification is spreading fast; implementation of green projects; adoption of technology to reuse grey water; and establishing small ponds to collect water;
l    Setting limits on the water used in mining, and prohibiting use of potable water for industrial purposes;
l    Formation of a unit in exclusive charge of water-related issues, projects and programmes in the aimag governor’s office. 

Finally, Bat-Erdene, Member of Parliament, Ch. Jargalsaikhan, member of the local parliament, Dr. D.Basandorj, Head of the NGO, Mongolian Water Partnership, and Dr. S. Chuluunkhuyag, President of the Mongolian Water Academy, announced that they were establishing the Gobi + Water Project Team and signed a memorandum on intensive Green Development of the Gobi. The memorandum asserted the need for revised water use rates on the basis of underground water consumption costs in mining seen against the inflation rate, creation of a favorable legal environment for introducing grey water use and adoption of water saving measures, and intensifying Green development in the Gobi by increasing the involvement of the Government, civil society organizations and citizens in it. 

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