Mongolian Minster of Nature, Environment and Tourism gave an interview, likely in order to assure potential investors that all environmental issues related to South Gobi development are under control . However many of his answers are indirect and ambiguous. Immediately after the interview we quote World Bank report from 2009, clearly indicating that there is enough groundwater and no immediate need to build water transfer pipelines.
Does the Gobi region actually have the water needed for the mining construction projects? What does the feasibility study of Tavan Tolgoi have to say on this?
The feasibility study calculates that 416.6l/s or 36,000 cubic meters of water will be needed for the project. This will come from the Balgas Ulaan lake where 15 wells will be drilled and through a pipeline of over 70 km in length and 600 mm in diameter. There will be three stations to pump the water. However, this figure is likely to change in the design stage when the extent of the demand will be clearer.
Does it mean that a new feasibility study could give different estimates of the water reserve?
That is quite possible. Since the project is to be implemented in a region where water is scarce, our Ministry will have to choose technology that will keep water consumption low and recycle the used water.
Let me explain about the feasibility study. There are four companies with mining licences in the coal deposit. The licence on the biggest part is owned by the State-owned Erdenes MGL. Since Parliament has given total control of the deposit to the State, Erdenes MGL will be responsible for the feasibility study. Once the study is approved, our Ministry will be requested to do the environmental impact evaluation. We plan to employ professional organizations for the job. The water consumption volume will be determined by the Hydrology and Technology Council and must be approved by me as the Environment Minister.
The preliminary feasibility study recommends further exploration for water. Does this mean that the water reserve is not sufficient for large scale production?
We all know that the Southern Gobi region has limited water reserve. A study of the Balgas Ulaan Lake in 1987-1988 in connection with Tavan Tolgoi determined that the water reserve there stood at 453 l/s. Later in 2007-2008 Khangad Exploration LLC conducted exploration for the Baruun Naran coal deposit and its results showed that it could use150.84 l/s or 13,032.92 cubic metres per day. These studies have to be reviewed and discrepancies reconciled, with more exploration undertaken of nearer sources.
Is there any other water reserve in the Gobi region besides the lake and the depression?
Water has been found near the TT deposit in Nariin zag, Zairmagtai, and Tavan Aldiin Gobi of Bayan Ovoo soum of Umnugobi aimag, in Borzon Gobi or Khurmen Tsagaan of Nomgon soum, and in Guramsan and Bugt Gobi of Khurmen soum. The total underground water reserve in all these deposits has been estimated at 219,701.0 cubic meters per day. A hydro geological exploration by Energy Resources made a preliminary estimate of 53,000 l/s or 4,579.2 cubic m per day reserves in Naimant valley of Tsogtsetsii soum, some 200-250 km from the TT deposit, It will require a lot of money and work to bring the water from there.
Aren’t there any restrictions on using underground water for mining in the Gobi region? Will such depletion of the precious resource not ruin the ecosystem?
We cannot allow any drastic changes in the Gobi ecosystem. All mines in the Gobi region have to send detailed annual reports on the state of the underground water reserve to the local administration, the aimag’s environment department and the Environment Ministry. If these reports reveal any dramatic change in the water level and its quality, mining operation will be suspended and the situation studied by an independent research organization. Anyone found guilty of having violated regulations will be penalised. Our regulatory mechanism is competent but they are to be extended further.
At the time of the negotiations for the OT investment agreement the Mineral Council warned against excessive and imprudent water consumption in mining. How true will this be in the present case?
That concern was clearly reflected in the OT agreement. The investors referred to potential reserves they had explored. The water department assessed their claims and found them acceptable. I approved this. The situation now is that the underground water of Gunii Khoiloo can be used until 2018 and other water sources should be found by then. The water consumption during production will be strictly monitored.
There are fears that construction of the railway will destroy animal habitat and will lead to large scale wildlife migration, especially of antelope. Are you thinking of relocating species, particularly those rare, prior to the project?
Both TT and OT deposit regions harbour several species in the Red List such as the wild horse, the black-tailed antelope and others. Active exploration and transportation activities in the last few years have seen many of these animals move to Khatanbulag soum of Dornogobi aimag, and to Nomgon, Bayan-Ovoo and Gurvantes soums of Umnugobi aimag. Unfortunately, animals cannot be made to follow a migration road we offer. We are now studying the experience of other countries. The road and railway projects will be planned so that they do not obstruct pasture switching, and normal migratory movement. Also, whatever is built should be kept low enough so that animals can cross them easily. The Ministry will soon recommend the standards in accordance with the environmental impact assessment.
I recently saw plants and flowers growing in the sand in Umnugobi. Is there any incentive for individuals working on green plantations there?
Water is the problem to encouraging vegetation in the Gobi. A scheme to supply clean water to the region is very important. Our Ministry and the Finance Ministry now jointly follow a scheme in which the State purchases trees that are more than three years old from individuals or business entities. In 2008, MNT13.9 million was spent on buying trees grown in 43 hectares. In 2009, both figures rose, and MNT26.4 million went to buy trees grown in 77.2 hectares, mostly by individuals.
What happened to the Kherlen-Gobi project that used to be discussed to help stop desertification and also provide water for mining?
At the moment, we are concentrating on the Orkhon-Gobi project to meet drinking water needs in particular. Let us see how it works out. Depending on the results, we can take up similar projects with the Kherlen and other rivers.
What about harvesting rain and flood water?
The national water program recently passed by Parliament calls for building ponds to collect flood water, install containers for rain water and take other measures to store the water from melting glaciers. We have studied the practices in Turkey, Korea, Japan and the US. I found Turkey’s example the most impressive. It has solved many problems simultaneously by creating water reserves. The stored water is used to produce energy, in agriculture and industry, and the facilities prevent flooding and also create new areas for tourism.
Our water program includes plans to dig ponds to collect rain water, to seed clouds, to install ground generators to increase precipitation and help refill the reserves.
What is this requirement for licence holders to place a certain amount in a reclamation fund before beginning work?
It is not there at present. Now mining operation starts, and then the Ministry approves the amount of money to be spent annually on environmental protection and reclamation. We follow Article 39.1.9 in the minerals law and demand that 50% of this amount is placed by the miner in a special account of the State fund for later use. If the money is not needed in a year, it remains in the account and can be given to another company doing the reclamation work. The Oyu Tolgoi project will be following this procedure but for Tavan Tolgoi we shall work on mechanisms to place an advance reclamation guarantee amount in a special fund, prepare rules governing how it is to be spent, and enforcing compulsory reclamation. The Oyu Tolgoi agreement calls for prior determination of reclamation costs in the event of closure, and of this being placed in advance in a special fund. This will be seen in Tavan Tolgoi also.
Once production starts in the Gobi, the population will grow there, threatening the environment. How do you plan to make sure the area does not suffer the fate of Ulaanbaatar?
This is an important question. Some areas in the Gobi, especially Tsogtsetssii and Khanbogd soums near Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi, have already changed dramatically and are growing into towns. We do not want settlements to be dependent solely on mines. The inevitable closure of mines some day must not affect the life of the people drastically. Proper planning would keep the supply of pure water and energy separate from the needs of the mine. We shall not allow another Ulaanbaatar to come up in the Gobi, and will insist on green facilities in no less than 40% of the total territory.
-A high estimate of demand for water resources in Southern Mongolia is 350,000 m3/day,
while a low estimate of the underground water potential is 500,000 m3/day….
Is Minister L.Gansukh familiar with those conclusions? Given likely environmental damage and huge expenses is it still worthwhile to «see how Orkhon-Gobi water transfer works out» ?