Water is life

One of the most pressing issues in Mongolia today is the protection of its rivers, streams, and springs, as well as the economical use of water throughout the country.  Without water, it is pointless to talk about brighter futures, economic policy and businesses. But the current negative global development pits the economy against the environment.
Therefore, the Mongolian Economy review will regularly touch upon environmental issues and water in particular, as it is of primary concern for the future of Mongolians. Such regular feature articles on the environment are hoped to drive the population to nurture love for their country and its nature, for it also belongs to the future generations.  


Water is life. Without water life cannot subsist. Despite the fact that water covers the majority of the Earth, freshwater resources represent a comparatively smaller percentage, a scarcity which worries countries throughout the world.

Countries are increasingly concerned over the reduction of freshwater resources as a consequence of climate change. Therefore, heads of states and governments of developed countries have convened under the motto “under one roof” to exchange opinions on this critical issue, and discuss future plans of actions. For example, since the International Freshwater Conference entitled “Water – Key to a Sustainable Development” took place in Bonn, Germany, many events have been organized in other countries to discuss and devise measures to protect freshwater resources, as well as combat the negative consequences of climate change. Mongolia is not immune to such global threats. Worse, being located at a high altitude in Central Asia, with an extreme continental climate, a low precipitation and high evaporation rate, and limited access to freshwater resources, the impact of climate change in Mongolia is accentuated causing many rivers and springs to dry up. In addition, Mongolians are well aware that the human factor - people’s careless attitude - importantly contributed to the significant changes in the environment these recent years.

Because water is a vital resource, its protection and adequate use constitute the basis of the country’s survival and development. Although Mongolians have been blessed with all types of natural wealth, the excessive and disorderly attitude adopted to extract this wealth as left Mongolians bitter. Many local provinces’ territories have been ravaged and now look like post war zone. Due to inappropriate mining excavations, many rivers, springs and ponds have been polluted or dried up. In 2003 alone, 28 rivers and springs have been polluted due to gold mining.

On the Selenge aimag’s territory where several big cities are located, the quality of water has been negatively affected by the extensive development of production and services. Experts sadly shake their heads over the pollution of the well known rivers such as Orkhon, Tuul, Kharaa, and Eruul because of gold mining. Relevant authorities have described how some rivers and ponds have been infested with spreading disease and parasites instead of fish which can no longer subsist there.

My heart bleeds whenever I hear how the Zavkhan river’s flow has been interrupted in some parts, and the river turned into sand dunes. I had never thought that such a big river, the jewel of the Zavkhan aimag, could ever be threatened with extinction. The Zavkhan river has been immortalized by many songs, and at times flooded over its banks. However, I was elated to learn last year that the Zavkhan river flows over its banks again like many years before.

Another example of the devastation of water resources can be found right here in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Every day it is possible to witness how the Tuul river, which was once the city’s main attractions, is gradually disappearing.  Ulaanbaatar city dwellers have been raised and nurtured by its streams as it provided them with fresh water, and it is devastating to see what has become of one of nature’s other beauty, one that also used to flood over its banks. Garbage and waste now surround it, and it has become a refuge for the poorest among us. In some parts where the stream seems to be barely flowing, it has been polluted to such an extent that fishes in search of fresh water swim near its banks and die their mouths opened. The content of ammonic ion in the polluted water coming from Ulaanbaatar’s central sewage treatment facility into the Tuul river exseeds by two times acceptable standards most of the time. The fact that the amount of absorbed oxygen is very small - 0.35–0.80 mg/l only – also shows how the Tuul river, in comparison with Surface Water Quality Standards, is “highly polluted”. Surely, this is something worth worrying about.

In addition, experts came to the conclusion that due to a failure to follow policies in vigor in protected zones, springs near Ulaanbaatar and other large settled areas have been polluted with garbage and waste. The World Bank conducted a study on the present state of the Tuul river sources, and produced a startling report warning how Ulaanbaatar city dwellers will face a dire situation in the consumption of clean drinking water for the next decade if the current situation continues unabated.

70 percent of surface water resources in Mongolia is generated in places of high altitude such as the Altai, Khangai, Khentii, Khuvsgul and Ikh Khyangan ranges, which constitute 30% of the Mongolian territory. With around 22 thousand cubic meters of water per square meter, Mongolia’s surface water is relatively smaller comparing to other countries. However, for a country with a small and sparsely settled population, Mongolia ranks comparatively higher in the amount of water resource per person. Nevertheless, it ranks substantially lower than average in the consumption of water per person in the so-called “ger” districts, in the provinces, as well as in the agricultural and industrial uses of water.  In 2004, 30.8% of the Mongolian population consumed water from the central water supply system; the remaining 69.2% received water from decentralized water supply sources or transportable water services (24.8% from water supply stations, 35.7% from wells, and 9.1% from springs and rivers). As can be seen from the water usage surveys, city dwellers in apartments consume an average of 230-300 liters of water per day, while most people in “ger” districts and nomadic households consume approximately 5-10 liters per day. Cities with the highest rate of water consumption are Ulaanbaatar, Darkhan, Erdenet, and Choibalsan. It can be seen that people living in flats harbor the most uneconomical approach to water usage.

Generally, except for the Government policies and resolutions, citizens need to show a genuine desire to protect nature. It is necessary to revive ancestral and ecologically sound practices and customs. When it comes to mining, it is necessary to take into consideration the negative effects mining will have on the nature and to introduce and follow international practices to help restore the environment to its original state. Can one imagine the kind of environmental conditions Mongolia’s citizens will live in in the future, if several of its rivers and springs, have dried up? Ulaanbaatar city dwellers need to carefully consider where their drinking water will be supplied from if most of the Tuul river and its sources are contaminated. Of course, apart from people’s sincere desire to protect the nature surrounding them, the iron fist of the State is also essential.