Where did all the water go? 2014-03-13 10:43
By I. Otgonjargal
Mongolian Economy explores Ulaanbaatar’s water threat as part of this issue’s ‘water theme’
Much attention is given to mining and the industry’s effect on groundwater supply, but the battle for Mongolia’s urban water supply is also of great concern.
In Ulaanbaatar, water is used inefficiently by its citizens, organisations and factories connected to the centralised water supply and sewerage network. The land of the eternal blue sky gets a measly 230 millimetres of annual rainfall. In 70 percent of the country surface water is very limited; meanwhile 22 percent of total water resources originate from the Gobi and 78 percent from the mountains. Grey water is largely unheard of so the same water used for drinking is used to flush toilets. (See Figure 1)
There is an obvious water supply problem in Mongolia. Raising the price of water may change the way residents think about water use. The price of water has not changed since the 1990s, when Mongolia transitioned from a planned to a market economy. There is also a huge disparity in the price people pay for water, depending on the type of home. Apartment dwellers pay MNT 0.32 per litre, while ger district residents pay triple that amount for MNT 1 per litre. Companies pay MNT 0.55 per litre.
Water agencies in Mongolia are meanwhile on the brink of bankruptcy. The Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (USUG) operates at a loss of MNT 10 million a day. For example, USUG spends MNT 7,900 on a single truck able to transport fives tonnes of water for delivery to ger districts. With a price tag of MNT 1 per litre, that five tonnes of water stands to earn just MNT 5,000 for a loss of MNT 2,900.
Half a year ago USUG and other water agencies handed in a proposal to the Water Services Regulatory Commission of Mongolia (WSRC) that argued for the need to increase water prices to recover the losses they were experiencing. In WSRC’s revision of the proposal it suggests that the price of water paid by ger district consumers should not be changed because those residents already have access to alternative water truck services and the incomes of households in those areas were already low. The commission also noted that ger households had much more controlled daily consumption than their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar’s apartments.
According to a study by USUG, water consumption per ger district household ranges from eight to 10 litres a day while apartment dwellers consume 250 litres of water a day. Raising the price of water may affect the way those living in apartments treat their water. In addition to price increases, an integrated water management policy is also needed.
WSRC suggested that apartment residents pay an additional MNT 0.18 per litre to MNT .5 per litre. However, the proposal has not received a decision by the Authority for Fair Competition and Consumers Protection (AFCCP), and its position on the proposal is unclear.
The Law on Water puts the responsibility of price setting with WSRC, which was established in 2012. But AFCCP must grant permission to WSRC to do change prices, according to WSRC Director Ch. Erdenenchimeg,
“Since October 2012, WSRC has been carrying out research and submitting the outcomes to AFCCP on the necessity of increasing the price of water aimed at addressing the financial difficulties of water service providers,” she said.
AFCCP held on to the proposal for a year and was supposed to make a decision this past January, but the agency put off the decision to a new, undetermined date. Its concern is largely what public reaction to the price hike might be. Also, AFFCP said the organisations are biased in their conclusions in the proposal and instead they should focus on raising public awareness for better water management.
There is also the suggestion by some that USUG’s water price hike proposal for apartment residents to MNT 0.5 per litre is too low.
Instead, the price should have been increased to MNT 1 per litre – the current price paid by ger district residents.
Water pricing is a very important issue related to Ulaanbaatar’s water security. There are 366 kilometres of fresh water pipelines in Ulaanbaatar, which were built in the early 1960s. There has been no maintenance and renovation to these pipelines since then. This is the freshest groundwater in Mongolia, according to USUG.
Urban growth and development of the mining industry will put tremendous pressure on the groundwater supply at the Tuul River. Water professionals say a complete study on Ulaanbaatar’s water resources has never been done. However, some smaller studies are under way by both foreign and Mongolian research organisations. For example, a number of ger district households and factories in Ulaanbaatar own private wells, and no study has ever looked at their impact.
Water experts at USUG say that water resources could be exhausted by 2016 if no change is made in today’s unregulated water consumption and use by Ulaanbaatar. Monitoring is needed, and more value should be placed on resources.
Grey water technology would be on way to help retain water supplies.
Mongolia already has its state policy for water resources. It also set a strategic goal aimed at protecting water resources and increasing surface water consumption to meet the growing water demand with the approval of the 2012 Law on Water and the 2010 National Water Programme. Implementation of such legislation has been challenging, however.
Water scarcity is not just a problem for the capital. Big mining operations in the Gobi desert constantly put water resources to the test. The Gobi has very little surface water, comprising 0.03 percent of total surface water in Mongolia.
The main source of water in the Gobi is underground aquifers, with 60 percent of total groundwater resources in Mongolia located in Gobi areas. That groundwater is not of much use for drinking, however, due to high levels of substances such as fluoride, iron and uranium.
Water consumed for agricultural uses is also cause for strain. In some places the volume of water consumption per head of livestock is low – and the same often goes per individual. Many herders transport water from far off distance to give their livestock.
It is hard to imagine a life without water while there is currently always a fresh supply readily available. Better water management through measures such as raising the cost for its consumption may be what Ulaanbaatar’s citizens need to place more value on their freshwater supply.