Recent article in China Dialogue by Huo Weiya describes controversies around water transfer from Hailaer River to Dalai Lake. Unfortunately it fails to mention that Argun River floodplain wetlands likely affected by water transfer are also situated mostly in China and have immense natural value. But it puts together many interesting details helping to understand politics around this problem.
Dalai Lake is shrinking. For years, the water level of northern China’s largest freshwater lake — lying on the Hulunbuir grasslands of Inner Mongolia, close to the borders with Mongolia and Russia — has been falling. Since 2009, the local government has been trying to halt the decline by siphoning off water from the Argun River, which forms part of the boundary between Russia and China. But Dalai’s long-term future is still unclear.Dalai is a huge body of water — the fifth biggest of China’s freshwater lakes. And its importance in maintaining the ecological balance of the Hulunbuir grasslands, currently the healthiest in China, has earned it the nickname «Kidney of the Grasslands». In 1986, Inner Mongolia established the Dalai Lake Nature Reserve in order to protect the site’s rare birds, wetlands and grasslands ecology. In 1992, the area was upgraded to a national nature reserve and, in 2001, it was included on a list of internationally important wetlands.But recognition has not prevented decline. «The water level drops every day. It hasn’t come back up for seven or eight years,» the 60-year-old owner of Golden Sands Holiday Village, a resort on the north-east bank of the lake, told me when I travelled to Hulunbuir in September last year. The grasslands were already yellowing and the herders were driving to and from their homes with loads of grass, harvested for winter fodder.The owner of Golden Sands (who asked not to be identified by name) and his wife are not herders. They started their resort business 10 years ago. July and August is their busy period, when they offer tourists grassland experiences like swimming in the lake and fishing with rod or nets.
When I met the owner, it was clear weather, and he pointed out the white sands by the edge of the lake, explaining that the wind blows for four days out of every five. «As soon as the wind gets up, the air is filled with sand,» he said. He believes desertification of the grasslands is a direct result of the lake’s shrinking size.
Falling water levels have left a 600-metre wide stretch of white sand between the grasslands and the lake. According to media reports, satellite surveys calculated the area of the lake to be 2,370 square kilometres in April 2000. By June, 2010, it had shrunk to 1,850 square kilometres — a loss of 520 square kilometres.
Manzhouli, a border city north-west of the lake, once planned to use water from here to create its own manmade lake, with a «Lovers’ Island», but it was forced to abandon the idea due to the falling water levels at Dalai.
The owner of Golden Sands blames the lake’s decline on years of unusually dry weather: «It doesn’t snow all winter, and then we get big snows in the spring — like this year. It gets so cold that even us locals can’t take it.»
Liu Songtao is deputy director of the Dalai Lake National Nature Reserve management bureau. He agreed that the shifting ecology of the grasslands and the lake is strongly affected by the climate, and that the dwindling size of the lake is due to sustained dry weather.
The lake gets its water from the Kherlen and Wuerxun rivers, as well as from rain falling onto the lake and its surroundings. Liu said that temperatures on the grasslands have been rising for over 10 years, with annual average temperatures increasing by about three degrees Celsius between 1960 and 2009, while precipitation has fallen. The amount of water flowing in from the two rivers has also been decreasing. In 2007, none came through at all.
The falling water level has exacerbated the degradation of the grasslands. «There is a direct link between the worsening lake ecology and the degradation and desertification of the grasslands,» Yang Yusheng, a water engineer with Hulunbuir city, told the media last year. Yang said that falling water levels are causing groundwater from the surrounding area to flow inwards, lowering the level of groundwater under the grasslands and worsening desertification. «Dalai Lake is the kidney of the Hulunbuir grasslands — and of course you’re going to suffer if your kidney stops working.»
The effects of falling water levels are not only felt in China, but also in Mongolia and Russia. In 1994, the three nations established the Dauria International Protected Area, of which the Dalai National Nature Reserve is a member. In 2005, Mongolia formed plans to retain a tenth of the flow of the Kherlun River for development of its local mining industry. But, explained Liu, the project was abandoned after discussion between the three parties.
To halt Dalai’s decline, the city of Hulunbuir came up with a plan: it would take 1.05 billion cubic metres of water a year from the 3.7 billion that flow through the Hailar River (the upstream name of the Argun) to replenish the lake. China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) approved the plan in April 2006 and, in the spring of 2007, work began.
But the scheme met with opposition from Russia. The governor of the Trans-Baikal territory wrote a letter to Russia’s ministers of natural resources and foreign affairs, saying: «If this project is completed, 1,500 square kilometres of river banks along the Erguna will be irreparably damaged.»
Eugene Simonov, coordinator at the Rivers without Boundaries Coalition — an NGO formed in July 2009 by Russian, Mongolian and US experts on the Heilongjiang River basin — also opposed the scheme. He said that, if completed, the project would have a major impact on the wetlands and communities of the lower reaches of the Hailar River and set a dangerous precedent for water-engineering projects and unsustainable use of water.
An official from the Hulunbuir Environmental Protection Bureau, who asked not to be named, said that a diplomatic note from Russia triggered visits from officials from the State Environmental Protection Agency, the Ministry of Water Resources and the State Forestry Administration, and that the project was temporarily put on hold. «But in the end it went ahead, so the governments must have come to an agreement,» the official said.
According to the water authorities in Hulunbuir, the project to bring river water to the lake was completed last August and a dedicated office has been set up to manage the process. In light of Russian opposition, they lowered the amount of water they intend to draw from the river to 390 million cubic metres per year. One of the officials in charge of the project said that this figure was not set in stone, however — they will control the flow with a sluice gate and take more water when the river is high.
Liu said that the gate would only be opened for short periods, and usually only during flood season. They would not open it when the river is low, he said, because of downstream considerations: «Even if we didn’t care what Russia thought, we need to consider the Chinese people downstream — they need water for drinking, for livestock, for their daily lives.»
But the project employee posted at the sluice gate said that it had never been closed, and that water from the Hailar River was being constantly channelled towards the lake. The gate would only be lowered if there was too much water, he said.
(RwB would like our readers to enjoy this amazing pluralism of opinions on the most crucial question: guaranteed flow regime downstream. Official communication with Russian side in 2009 was in line with the first statement, however not mentioning that more water will be diverted during the flood. Actual structure allows to divert more than 30% of total annual river flow without use of pumps and more if pumps are installed at the canal head)
From the Mongol yurts at the Golden Sands Holiday Village, it was possible to see Hulungou, where the water from the Hailar reaches Dalai Lake. The resort owner said that he was pleased about the extra water, but that it wouldn’t be enough to save the lake. «The copper mine on the other side of the lake is taking out as much as the new channel brings in,» he said.
The «copper mine» in question is Gujinyu Mining’s copper and molybdenum pit, a China Gold Group subsidiary. In 2008, it emerged that the mining company had laid a pipe to draw water from the lake, and the holiday village boss believes they are still using the lake’s resources.
However, Liu said that the changing shape of the lake is not being caused by local human activity and that natural changes and global climate change are to blame. «There’s no industry around the lake, just livestock farming,» he said. And, in his opinion, there is little the nature reserve can do about the shrinking lake. «All we can do is to keep the reserve intact, try to prevent further deterioration and ensure that, when the conditions are right, Dalai will be able to recover.»
The Krasnoyarsk-based environmental NGO «Plotina»(«Dam») and other interested parties will hold the Sixth International Rivers of Siberia Conference in Krasnoyarsk,on March 22-24, 2011. The Conference is dedicated to uniting civil society and strengthening public involvement in solving river-related problems in Siberia and the Russian Far East, sharing domestic and international experience in river conservation.
We invite you and your colleagues to participate in this conference. Please notify us of your participation via email before February 10, 2011 (please complete and send the attached application form to main address firstname.lastname@example.org (Russian and English), secondary address email@example.com).
Organizers: Russian and international environmental NGOs and movements, including:
Civil society representatives from throughout Russia, Asia, Europe, and Americas
Government and municipality representatives
Scientific community and research institution representatives
Water managers and users
The suggested discussion topics are as follows:
The public involvement in solving river-related problems in Siberia and Far East.
Large dams and our rivers (the status of large hydropower dams and plans for building new dams).
Cooperation in Asia: common issues and links between Russia and neighbors in Asia
Value of rivers in the culture of common people
Issues in water resource management legislation
Solving water pollution problems
Forests and rivers
Conference participants will work in plenary sessions and focused discussions in small groups.
Letters and resolutions regarding the condition of Siberian rivers will be prepared during the conference, as will a plan of action for environmental NGOs working to preserve unique river ecosystems. Conference participants may send suggestions for letters and resolutions prior to the start of the conference.
Official language: Russian (with translation into English)
Deadline for submitting applications and abstracts —February 10, 2011and materials for publication in the conference compendium should be submitted beforeFebruary 20, 2011 (
Personal invitations and Bulletin No. 2 will be sent out before February 28, 2011
Conference dates: March 22 24, 2011 in Krasnoyarsk, Russia
Participants are expected to share 2 and 3-person rooms at conference venue -«Buzim » Retreat in the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk City. We estimate that the cost of lodging and meals for three days during the conference venue will not exceed 4500 rubles. (Currently equals 150USD, 1000 RMB).
Single person («luxury») rooms also are available at «Buzim » Retreat but will cost much more, if you want to rent such room — notify organizers far in advance.
Organizers will meet participants in Krasnoyarsk City and bring by bus to and from «Buzim » Retreat.
The organizing committee can reimburse travel and accommodation costs only for a limited number of conference participants representing civil society organizations. Because the organizing committee has limited funds, priority for travel and accommodation cost reimbursement will be given to participants planning to speak during the conference that submit their publication materials on time and send suggestions for final letters and resolutions (this will be confirmed in a personal invitation).
The organizers will publish a compendium prior to the beginning of the conference. Articles should be no more than four А4-sized pages long, including graphics, tables, and bibliography, (should follow Form No. 2 formatting as outlined below). Articles must be received before February 20, 2011.
Correspondence with the author will be primarily via email. The organizers request that you please provide a primary and secondary email address to avoid missing messages.
Report title (Times New Roman, bold, Center, 12pt font)A.B. Ivanov1, R.I. Sibirev (Times New Roman, normal, Center, 12)1Siberian Environmental Agency, Russia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Materials should not exceed four A-4 sized pages, including images, graphs, and bibliography. Electronic files will be accepted via email as an attached Word file (versions up to and including 2003), with the first author’s last name as the title. The text should be in MSWord for Windows format, 12pt. Times New Roman font, single-spaced, justified, wrapped text, indent 1 cm, 2.5 cm margins. Extra spaces are not permitted. Tables and graphs should be on separate pages, with titles. Images should be in black and white and in standard formats .cdr, .jpg, .eps, .tiff, .bmp and attached as separate files with by-lines. References to images and tables should be in parentheses (Picture 1), (Table 1); literary references should be in square brackets . Image by-lines should be in 12pt. Times New Roman font, underneath the image. The bibliography should be in alphabetical order in italicized 10pt. Times New Roman font, and separated from the main by of the text by skipping a line. The following MUST be provided in English: report title, authors’ last names, organization, and brief annotation.
1. Ivanov, A.I., Koptyugov, P.A. Sustainable Water Use …….etc.
2. Lisitsyn, I.S., Petryak, V.V. Spill Response … etc.
Name (last, first, M.I.): _______________________________________________
For us, those who work in Argun River basin, where at least 5 new reservoirs are being built or planned in near future (see map), this emerging debate is very important. Discussion below appeared in china daily under the title» No clear winner in hydro vs coal power debate». But, ironically enough, we do not have this abstract choice, one of functions of our blooming reservoirs is to supply water to ever growing number of thermal power stations along Hailaer and Yimin rivers.
The argument that hydropower construction may contribute more pollution than thermal power plants has stirred controversy among the country’s top authorities, reported Chinese media.
Ling Jiang, deputy director of the department of pollution prevention and control under the Ministry of Environmental Protection said recently that hydropower was not as clean as people thought and might cause more pollution than thermal power, said a report by China National Radio. He said the development of hydropower projects destroyed parts of the ecosystem and caused water and soil erosion in nearby rivers.
The argument immediately triggered a stir among senior officials and hydropower experts.Zhang Baoguo, director of the National Energy Administration, said reservoirs are not the reason for worsening water quality in nearby rivers.
Han Xiaoping, chief information officer of domestic energy portal china5e.com, said any energy will damage the environment and hydropower, as an important relatively clean energy, should be given priority in energy development in China.Thermal power has taken too large a share in the country’s energy production, with annual coal consumption reaching nearly 70 percent of total energy consumption and it is expected to reach 4 billion tons in 2015, Han said.He added that thermal power production will not only produce greenhouse gases, but would also discharge a great amount of nitrogen oxides and dust containing heavy metals that are harmful to health.
Mao Xianqiang, professor of the School of Environment at the Beijing Normal University, told China News Service that, generally speaking, hydropower was categorized as clean energy because of its small pollutant emissions, but it also affected ecosystems due to the changes it caused in geological conditions, such as cutting off the water flows and submerging land.
In August, Zhang said China has 400 million kilowatts of potential economically usable hydropower and the country is expected to expand its installed hydropower capacity to 300 million kilowatts by 2015 in an effort to cut carbon emissions.The country’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) has also noted the country’s ambitions in hydropower development.China approved several new hydropower projects in 2010 to speed up its development of clean energy, with the National Development and Reform Commission approving the construction of Changheba hydropower project, Guandi Hydropower Station and Tongzilin hydropower project in Sichuan province, Wudongde and Baihetan hydropower projects in Yunnan province. Work on Zangmu Hydropower Station in the Tibet autonomous region, the world’s highest, started on Sept 27, 2010. It will have a capacity of 510,000 kW. The station is expected to ease power shortages in central Tibet and boost regional economic development.
«Mongolia today has full of invincible army of destroyers, who can damage land soil and nature. It is impossible to calculate by numbers damage caused by mining to environment and local economy. Ancient historical Orkhon River is crying and running sorrowful with red soil, due at the headstream «Mongol gazar » company had been conducting it’s gold mining since 6 years, had not been recover those areas, then artificial lakes cleft their embank , chemical heavier elements are starting to pour into the Orkhon River now . Orkhon River reaches to 13 soums of 5 provinces, continues for 1124 km , most longer river of Mongolia. The community from 5 provinces, where Orkhon River passes through, are suffering physically for thirst and mentally to feeling disappointed and overpowered.
Legendary Onon river , where Genghis Khan washed by and drunk from, now is polluted by illegal mining operation. Thanks to mining, whirling dirt and sand replaced water in the river.
Khan Khentii Ridge supplies fresh water for central Asia. One of the three bigger source rivers beginning from this ridge , Onon, is polluted by mining waste this year pollution comes from the Ashin River, which is one of the bigger tributaries of Onon polluted by mining wastes too. Onon River flows for 400 km through Mongolia. It is named as fresh water indicator, and scientists say that only here fish is left in large numbers. But now as Ashin River’s pollution affects Onon , large and even small fishes became very rare. It is an obvious ecocatastrophe. Local community is very worried by pollution affecting Onon waters.
Ashin river : whirling dirt and sand replaced water in the river
«Balj» company mining Ashinga River tributary in Kyrinsky region, Zabaikalsky Kray, Russia (Photos by S.Zhelyabovsky)
This river under the Russian name of Ashinga takes source in Kyrinsky region, Zabaikalsky Kray, then crosses Russian-Mongolian border and passes through Mongolian territory for 5 km, and flows into Onon River from it’s left side. International researchers determined that Onon River is the main source of great Amur river. Worldwide Fund for Nature and Japanese Parliament joined together implementing the project to protect this river. Ancient historic Orkhon River under influence of gold mining waste started to flow as yellowish stream of dirt. I wish that this Orkhon River’s tragic fate will not be repeated again by the Onon River!»
Russia and Mongolia have signed an agreement to cooperate in the production of Mongolian uranium. Mongolian Prime minister Sanjaa Bayar also told journalists that his country is interested in building a nuclear power plant with Russian help.
Water-pumping station in Donod Uranium mining camp.
(Pipes dug out and likely sold to China as scrap metal.)
Mardai, Dornod. 2007
According to reports, the agreement signed during a visit by Bayar to Moscow comprises a plan of joint actions whereby Russian specialists would assist in the uranium exploration, extraction and processing in Mongolia. OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Agency figures show Mongolia’s ‘reasonably assured’ uranium resources are currently estimated at some 46,000 tonnes, but Sergei Kiryenko, head of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, was upbeat about the possibility the country could have much more. «I think they are more than officially registered, over 100,000 tonnes,» he said. Russian Federation Council ratified on Dec. 24 the agreement with Mongolia on the creation of a uranium mining joint venture and President Medvedev approved it on Jan. 6 2011.
Canada’s Khan Resources11 January 2011 has formally started an international arbitration action against the government of Mongolia for its «expropriatory and unlawful treatment» of Khan relating to the Dornod uranium deposit. In a statement, the company said that Mongolia’s Nuclear Energy Agency announced in November 2010 that it would not reinstate its licences for Dornod, «which the government illegally cancelled so that it could pursue the project without Khan.» The company is therefore claiming over $200 million in compensation for losses and damages. The arbitration will take place under the rules of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
Khan Resources Inc also has sued Russia’s state-owned uranium miner Atomredmetzoloto (ARMZ) in the Ontario Superior Court seeking C$300 million in damages for alleged unlawful interferences in the Canadian explorer’s Mongolian operations. In a statement, Khan alleged that ARMZ and its affiliates interfered in the joint venture between Khan and MonAtom LLC — Mongolia’s state-owned entity — and sought to eliminate Khan’s mining and exploration licenses in the country, to help ARMZ proceed with its own joint venture with the Mongolian firm. Khan has been facing problems from Mongolian authorities with regard to its flagship Dornod uranium project in the country. «ARMZ has made no secret of its desire to acquire control of the Dornod uranium property in Mongolia,» Khan’s Chief Executive Grant Edey said in the statement. (Reuters Aug. 20, 2010)
Open pit mining in Mardai, Dornod. 2007
HISTORY (after Wallace M. Mays 1998)
The uranium deposits in this project were discovered and defined by Geologorazvedka, a division of the Ministry of Geology of Russia (formerly of the Soviet Union). Uranium exploration in the region during the 1945-60 period proved unsuccessful. However, the uranium ore deposit was discovered in 1977 following a Mongolian-Russian intergovernmental exploration agreement, signed in 1970, covering the Mongol-Priargun district.
Under a secret agreement executed in 1981 between Mongolia and the USSR, Russian interests were permitted to operate the Dornod mine and export uranium ore to Russia for final processing. The Dornod mines and associated support infrastructure were developed as a «sub-Combine» (called ERDES) to the Priargunsky Mining and Chemical Enterprise, a division of the (then Soviet) Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). Priargunsky is located at Krasnokamensk, Russia, approximately 400 km north of Dornod.
In addition to the open pit mine, extensive development work was completed on the No. 7 Orebody (underground).
The main orebody resides in a single block approximately 30 metres thick which is amenable to bulk mining technology. Three shafts have been sunk (400-450 metres deep) with extensive underground exploration drifts (22 km).
In June 1995, WM Mining Company entered into a tripartite agreement with the Priargunsky Mining and Chemical Company and Mongol Erdene, a mining company owned by the Mongolian government. Initially each party had one-third ownership, but WM Mining eventually negotiated 58% ownership, with the other parties owning 21% each. WM Mining also under-took to provide a project feasibility study for the open pit mine and an environmental assessment; both were completed in 1995.
In November 1996, the mine was placed in care and maintenance status by Priargunsky, the then project operator. In July 1997, WM Mining sold its rights and obligations to World Wide Minerals Ltd, a public company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.The seemingly infinite Mongolian sky also hangs over the largest mining boom on the planet.
On my flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a miner named Tim. Tim had a wife and two children back in Nova Scotia, with another on the way. He was trying to convince his wife to relocate to Mongolia, but she wasn’t going for it yet. So his mining career kept him away from his family as he traveled to Colorado, Nevada, Australia, and now Mongolia. Tim kept his taupe outdoorsman’s hat on for the entire flight, but I forgave him for that because he shared his Lonely Planet Mongolia and enthusiastically told me about his work at a new copper mine in the Gobi Desert.
«It’s just a camp now, but we’re investing $40 million this year alone, and when it really gets up and running, it’ll probably become the second largest city in Mongolia,» Tim told me. «It’s going to be huge.»
Tim was almost certainly talking about the Oyu Tolgoi mine, or «Turquoise Hill,» a copper and gold ore deposit in Southern Mongolia that’s larger than the state of Florida. Oyu Tolgoi is the world’s largest mining exploration project, a joint venture between a Canadian company named Ivanhoe and the Mongolian government, with significant financing from Chilean mining giant Rio Tinto. Together, they plan to invest $5 billion into operations in the next few years, making Oyu Tolgoi the largest foreign investment in Mongolian history. Over the forecast 65-year lifespan of the mine, its revenues are expected to become a third of Mongolia’s gross domestic product. It’s a big deal, and the discovery of it and a wealth of untapped deposits of coal, gold, silver, tin, uranium, and «rare earth minerals» used in most of today’s advanced electronics has mining-industry shills proclaiming Mongolia the next «Saudi Arabia of insert-name-of-precious-metal-here.»
Despite projections that the mining boom is expected to triple or quadruple the size of Mongolia’s economy in the next five years, times are tough for most Mongolians, and the relationship between the country’s great natural resources and the wealth of its people is still to be determined. The United Nations estimates that 27 percent of Mongolia’s urban population lives below the poverty line. In rural areas, nearly fifty percent of people live in poverty. During the past decade, a series of unusually severe zuds — storms that turn winter snow cover into solid ice, causing the mass starvation of livestock — has had a devastating effect on a country where a quarter of the people make their living (or attempt to make their living) raising livestock.
And so, like people in many other impoverished nations, Mongolians are choosing between remaining with their traditional ways or mortgaging their natural resources.
«Living off the cashmere is not economically sustainable. But is living off mining sustainable?» says Onodelgerekh Ganzorig, director of the Mongol Environmental Conservation (MEC), an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that works to preserve the environment and cultural heritage of the country. «Half of Mongolians say ‘Yes, we want mining.’ But the other half that lives off the land is saying ‘No, we don’t support it, because it’s going to destroy this whole area and we’re not going to have grazing lands or pasture lands.'»
Mongolia today is the least densely populated country in the world, with four people per square mile. But before I could get to the countryside, I needed to spend several days in Ulaanbaatar («Red Hero,» UB in local slang), the capital city. In the past decade, a combination of economic and climatological disasters have forced many Mongolians from rural areas to seek opportunity in UB, and the city has swelled improvidently, from the 300,000 it was originally designed for to around a million today, or roughly a third of the country’s entire population. Except for a mercilessly short window of summertime with snatches of clear skies and almost hyper-real clouds, UB is dusty and void of vegetation. The city is filled with block after block of concrete apartment buildings with paint peeling from exposure to the extreme cold and dryness of winter. Dust storms frequently whip through the city.
Even when it’s still the air quality is atrocious. The belching exhaust towers of UB’s two major coal power plants dominate an otherwise monolithic concrete skyline. Around the perimeter of UB are ger (yurt) «suburbs» where smoking tin exhaust pipes rise from a sea of circular cloth roofs. The city’s many poor have small stoves they use constantly to cook and keep warm with throughout the long winter in the coldest national capital city in the world. Sometimes they burn trash — wood, furniture, tires. But mostly they burn the same coal as the city’s power plants. Today, a fair number of UB’s residents refer to the city in winter as «Utaanbaatar» — «Smog Hero.»
My UB host, guide, and driver, Bogi («Crystal»), grew up in a nomadic family of herders in western Mongolia. She is 24, and somewhat typical of her generation: She’s left her family’s traditional way of life in the countryside to pursue opportunities in the city. Bogi is lean yet wide-shouldered and has straight black shoulder-length hair, dark eyes, and strong, high cheekbones. To keep her hands from tanning like those of a country person, she wears lacy white-sleeved gloves when she drives. Bogi teaches English for much of the year, but in the summer she runs a traveler’s hostel and gets up at 4:30 a.m. to meet travelers disembarking from the Trans-Siberian railroad.
On my third day in Mongolia, Bogi drove me out of the city to look for a ger to rent from a nomad family somewhere in Gorkhi-Terelj, a national park and protected area two hours northeast of UB. We bumped over a mix of unpaved dirt and marginally more paved roads, and Bogi assured me that finding a ger would simply be a matter of driving into the countryside, locating a family, and negotiating room and lodging. And she was right — more or less. Mongolians have a well-earned reputation for being hospitable to travelers, and theirs is a land largely without fences. It’s still possible to rent or buy a horse and ride from ger-to-ger across a great deal of the country. Finding lodging in traveler-oriented Gorkhi-Terelj would be easy.
After one unsuccessful stop, we drove up to a group of teenagers and a young man on horseback near a large rock formation. Bogi exchanged a few words with the man on the horse, Baul (ba-OOL), who had ruddy wind- and sun-burned cheeks and wore a long, blue, high-collared robe tied together at the waist by a thick yellow silk sash. He gestured for us to follow him as he galloped his horse up the road. We drove to a farm with two livestock pens, three gers, and a satellite dish. A bargain was soon struck with his family for me to stay and be fed for two weeks for $17 per day.
In the car ride out, Bogi had asked about my desire to live in a ger, and seemed incredulous that an American would want to stay in one for two weeks. «Mongolia,» I said, squinting my eyes against the dust, «is beautiful.» At this, Bogi snorted, «I am from the country, so it is no big deal to me.» Still, long after the details of my stay were ironed out Bogi lingered for several rounds of salty yak-butter tea and Mongolian fry bread. As the circle of sky at the top of the ger grew dim, she was still there.
Bogi told me the family is nomadic, but that they mostly stay in Gorkhi-Terelj in summertime so they can take on visitors like me and make money. Over the next two weeks, in the course of a horse ride, rounds of vodka, and many heated games of chess with Baul, I learned — through sign language, and some rudimentary shared «Monglish» — that the family is putting their other son through graphic design college in UB. I also learned, through sharing my MP3 player with them, that Baul and his family really like the music of Lady Gaga. Mines and markets may be swayed or stalled, but resistance to Gaga is futile.
Pop culture is just one of the ways that Mongolia’s nomadic herders are connected to the broader world. Though it might surprise many people, the vagaries of the global economy also reach to the most remote plains of Mongolia. As the world’s markets contracted during the past two years, global prices for cashmere wool — herders’ most valuable product — fell. Many herders in Mongolia had grown increasingly to depend on the higher margins of cashmere sales, and had begun raising a higher proportion of goats for cashmere due to its profitability on the world market. But goats are insatiable grazers who can lay bare entire swaths of delicate grasslands and worsen Mongolia’s already serious problem with desertification.
«There have been droughts and zuds before, and lots of animals have starved before,» Ono from Mongol Environmental Conservation says. «The herders survived. It’s not just that there’s overgrazing. It’s now a matter of how to make money, so when we talk about sustainability, are we talking about environmental sustainability or economic sustainability?
«And then you have the government in the middle,» Ono said later. «And who do you think they support?»
A good idea of what the government supports can found in the words of Mongolia‘s Prime Minister, Sukhbaatar Batbold, who appeared on the Charlie Rose show in September 2010 and said: «We are already the Number Four exporter of coal to China. We are a quite serious exporter of copper to China, and with our copper and gold project with Rio Tinto, we would easily double and triple [copper] exports to China. There is huge potential. On top of that, we have new commodities to export to China — iron ore, zinc — and we do have some prospects for oil and gas and important reserves of uranium.»
Mongolia’s government may safely be described as pro-mining. It wants to develop the mineral resources of its country — and it expects to gain significant economic, social and political benefits from expansion of the mining sector. Government officials want the $5 billion coming into the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold project, and they want the massive Tavan Tolgoi coal project, the Boroo hard rock gold mine, the copper and molybdenum operation at Erdenet-Ovoo, and another copper/molybdenum mine, the Tsagaan Suvarga. They want the Nalayh coal mine in the north, the Oyut Ovoo in the south-central part of the country, and the Zaamar gold mine dredging operation on the Tuul River. They want the Dornod uranium mine and the Asgat silver mine. The Mongolian government wants revenue from its recently renewed uranium exploration and extraction ventures with Russia and Japan.
Government officials are also eager to attract big, mining-related infrastructure projects. Mongolia is partnering with a Finnish mining technology company, Outotec, on a massive project to be located in Sainshand that will smelt copper, process coal, and form part of a new railway estimated to cost more than $2 billion to build.
Regardless of whether the country wants them, Mongolia is also welcoming the dangerous jobs and social problems that typically plague mining operations. Mining towns begin as small camps that often become quite large, with little planning or civic impulse. An overwhelmingly male workforce comes for work in the mines while many women, faced with few other economic opportunities in such places, turn to sex work. HIV/AIDS and other STDs often blossom. In a global economic system, where laws of supply and demand reign supreme, mining export economies attract huge amounts of foreign money into an economy, causing inflation and damaging other sectors of the industrial economy, a phenomenon sometimes called «Dutch Disease» that can be understood as «too much wealth managed unwisely.»
Despite such drawbacks, the most salient question for Mongolians today is not whether mining should occur there.
«There’s no point to [that question], because it’s happening anyway,» Ono says. «I’ve worked on different mining-related projects for a long time. We fought for eight to ten years to stop mining companies, and it doesn’t happen. Why? Because it happens with or without you. Because it’s what the other half of the people want. It’s an economic development concept.»
The practical question, then, becomes how to have mining operations without losing other important environmental or cultural resources. At this point, harm reduction is the best that Mongolian environmentalists can do, by trying to see strong government regulations are in place — and enforced. Ono describes the main mission of the MEC as bringing together all stakeholders to talk about environmental issues: «In Mongolia, we have representatives from all sectors as advisors to our project, including the State Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment, and the President of the Academy of Sciences, who’s also an advisor to the Prime Minister. We have the water authority and the government agency and the scientists under the water authority. We have representatives from mining companies, and representatives from grassroots and reclamations services. We have eco-tourism representatives. What our program does is bring representatives from all sectors so they’re sitting around one table and acting everything out and working out solutions together.»
Even in a country with advanced environmental laws and strict enforcement, the very best case scenario for a mine involves an accident-free exploration and extraction phase followed by an aggressive long-term, well-funded reclamation plan that creates some approximation of the natural order that went before. There is no single worst-case environmental scenario for a mine. It could be staggering levels of water consumption, poisoned watersheds, or toxic silt-choked rivers that asphyxiate fish. It could be gaping open-pit mines and a surrounding dead zone created by any number of toxins leaching into the ground, or areas known in the mining industry as glory holes, where «block-caving» operations, which involve blasting deposits into tunnels dug below, create large areas of permanently unstable earth on the surface.
Mongolian and international environmentalists are warning that large-scale mining in Mongolia will likely lead to such problems. Profit rarely waits for caution. «With mine reclamation tactics, boom-and-bust is a proven. There just aren’t a lot of examples of success in post-mining land use,» says Paul Robinson, Research Director at the New Mexico-based mining watchdog organization Southwest Research and Information Center, and an environmental analyst with years of experience working in the Lake Baikal region that straddles the border of Russia and Mongolia. «Mining companies are designed to go out of business. They form operating companies for specific mines. The main companies are never liable, so the [reclamation] commitments they make are not in good faith.
«What we need to be doing,» Robinson says, «is contemporaneous reclamation. Complete environmental impact assessments and project plans to review before any mining starts, so the full cost of reclamation is factored into the budget of the mine, and reclamation costs can be paid up front, as a deposit.»
Ono agrees. «For the last years, it’s been a vicious cycle. We try to stop them, maybe we stop them, and they start operating again faster, doing more harm to the environment and then running away. We’re looking into what standards they’re following before they start operating…. You can’t stop all mining, but what you can say to mining companies is, ‘If you cannot operate safely there in that river, then you cannot operate there.’ People argue with me sometimes that the legal system is corrupt, and yes, the legal system is corrupt, but we have to be able to show something scientific, and be able to say ‘This is the problem legally,’ so it’s not just personal passions.»
Ah yes, corruption. Several days into my stay in the countryside, I read a copy of the English-language Mongolian Messenger newspaper I’d brought from UB. In addition to a metal-centric commodity price listings index on the front page, my edition of the Messenger featured an article entitled «Officials Defend False Income Declarations,» with this choice report: «The Anti-Corruption Agency found that [provincial] Governor Ts. Janlav did not declare his private house where he now lives, four apartments which are owned by his family members, [a] building with purpose for small-enterprise, 50 million [Mongolian, almost US$40,000] income from selling his two-story private house, as well as 23 percent of shares of Dornod Company that is owned by his wife.»
So, can Mongolia’s young government, commercial institutions, regulatory infrastructure, and civil society manage their mining boom in a way that doesn’t involve extreme degradation? Can they promote inclusive economic growth that lifts a majority of Mongolians, or builds for a post-mining future? It’s possible — mining law and reclamation policy have come a long way fast in other parts of the world — but such growth requires stability. The Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment has been reorganized five times in the past 20 years. According to a World Bank overview, Mongolia’s «deteriorating environmental situation is exacerbated by irresponsible vested interests, poor coordination among ministries and agencies, inadequate monitoring of natural resource conditions and weak enforcement of environmental regulations.»
I sighed, put the bad news down, and took a long walk away through floodplains and over rolling steppes. The scale of things in Gorkhi-Terelj is more suited to horseback riding than to walking, but I was a happy speck moving slowly through dung-maculated valleys full of the bleached skulls, spines, and other stray bone bits of departed animals. Daurian redstarts, Siberian blue robins, and black kites flew near to me along my way. The birds that perched did so near enough that I could have touched them with my hand, and they looked at me inquisitive and unafraid.
With the sun sinking perilously low on the horizon, I descended from the hills, through birch and larch forest, and picked my way through moist lowlands, across tufts of earth-like lily pads. I arrived just before night fell, and Baul stoked the wood stove and brought hot milk tea his mother had made. I sat drinking it, listened to the silence, and watched the last blue of the sky fade in the circular hole in the center of the ceiling.
On my flight out of the country, I sat next to another miner, an American executive named Robert, on his way from gold mining in Mongolia to an oil drilling gig in Kazakhstan. Robert was happy to talk about his business, about corruption and bribery, and about how «risk averse» US and European mining companies were losing out in the resource wars to their more daring Chinese and Russian counterparts. He shared some sordid mining stories about Nigeria, Mexico and … Afghanistan? Did the U.S. have mining operations in Afghanistan?
«Oh yeah,» Robert said, leaning in confidingly: «The Chinese just won the largest copper mining bid in the world there after bribing a bunch of Afghan officials, but that’s not even the worst part.» He paused for dramatic effect, then continued: «The worst part is that it’s the US providing military protection for the Chinese to do it!»
But that’s another story, isn’t it?
Brian Awehali is an award-winning journalist and former Britannica.com editor. He is a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Web-ste of «Mongolian Water Center» http://uudrug.co.cc now displays absolutely misleading description of Herlen-Gobi Project (as well as Orkhon-Gobi Project), which says the following:
The objective of the Herlen-Gobi Project is to divert water from the Herlen (Kherlen, Kelulunhe) River and supply it to the Southeastern Gobi regions by means of a pipeline network. This would require that a dam and intake structure be constructed at TogosOvo, which is approximately 125 km southeast of Ulaanbaatar. Then pipelines pump stations, and supporting facilities would be constructed to bring water south. The pipelines would branch near Choir, with one branch continuing South to OyuTolgoi and possibly Dalanzadgad, and the other branch turning southeast, generally following the road and railroad to ZaminUud on the China border.
The stream of «Herlen river» will be sustain and equable. «Herlen river» project is very significt to influence positive to Herlen river basin, near regions, and furthermore influence ecological balance of Dalai lake located in China coherence with global climate change by increase ecological potential of Herlen river.
«Herlen gobi» project can be actual power to fight desertification arising in Mongolian gobi region, and steppe, and can prevent from decrease groundwater resource existing those regions.
In future our country will have Heavy industrial center in Sainshand, and have to make decision water supply system of this center.
If we provide healthy safe drinking water, adequate sanitation service to population that live in settlements, and sub provinces existing in Gobi region nowadays, and in future, and Zamiin-Uud free economic zone, then it’s possible to improve population health, and average age longer 10 years.
Along main water transmission line in each 10 km create about 50 watering place, and thereupon these places will supply rural population, livestock.
This project will bring water supply to Shivee-Ovoo, and Tsagaan suvarga mining industries. And those mining industries are significant to Mongolian governments to give to their public ‘Motherland ration’ project.
RwB views this publication as a very alarming example of «greenwash» for one of the most questionable water infrastructure projects in the Dauria region.
According to an article by Jeremy Page in Wall Street Journal on November 09, 2010 local officials in China’s arid northwest have launched a new push for a vast water-diversion project that would pump raw sea water thousands of miles from the coast to the deserts of Xinjiang through a pipeline made of plastic and fiberglass.
The idea is to desalinate some of the seawater, but to use the rest to fill Xinjiang’s dried-up salt lakes and desert basins in the hope that it will evaporate and encourage rainfall over drought-stricken areas of northern and northwestern China.
Local government officials and water experts held a conference in Xinjiang on Friday to give new impetus to the proposal under which seawater would be pumped across four mountain ranges, and up to a height of more than 1,280 metres, on its way from the Bohai Sea off the coast of northeast China via Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang.
Several water experts and environmental activists have condemned the proposal, comparing it to the giant Three Gorges dam and another controversial scheme to channel the waters of the Yangtze River from southern to northern China.
But Li Xin’e, a local official who organized Friday’s conference, defended the idea as one of the only ways to alleviate the water shortages which she said were crippling development across northwestern China.
Ms. Li, who heads the economics department of Xinjiang’s Development Research Center, said the project now under way to divert the Yangtze from south to north would ease water shortages in central and northern China.
«However, northwestern China still faces a water-supply problem,» she told The Wall Street Journal.
She said the Xinjiang government had filed a report on the proposal to the State Council-China’s cabinet-in 2006 and Premier Wen Jiabao had read it and asked for more detailed research, which has now been completed.
The central government did not respond to requests for comment. But the State Council Research Office produced a report in 2007 which agreed that the project was feasible and could help to alleviate water shortages, reduce dust pollution, and boost coal production, according to a copy seen by The Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Li said the central government had not yet allocated funding, or a government department to oversee the project. Local authorities were pushing ahead with their own plans in Xinjiang, the northeastern province of Liaoning and the northern region of Inner Mongolia. Liaoning and Inner Mongolia have both suffered severe water shortages in recent years.
China’s latest five-year plan, which was approved by the Communist Party’s Central Committee last month, included a call to «encourage seawater desalination,» but did not mention any specific projects.
«Of course, there are some different opinions,» Ms. Li said. «Some geology and meteorology departments thought the seawater could bring ecological disaster. But actually, the technical barriers have been removed.»
She said big advances had been made in desalination technology in the Middle East, the U.S. and the European Union. The U.S.-based International Desalination Association also says advances in filter-membrane and distillation technology have lowered costs and made the industry more energy-efficient in recent years.
There is no estimate yet of the total cost of the project or the volume of water involved. Some Chinese experts at Friday’s conference said they expected the cost of transporting sea water to Xinjiang to be about 7 yuan ($1.05) per cubic meter, compared to 20 yuan ($3) for the south-north Yangtze diversion scheme.
Others, however, call the project unfeasible and urge the government to focus instead on limiting consumption and recycling waste water rather than investing billions of dollars in a project that would probably take decades to build.
Environmental activists, meanwhile, likened the scheme to the $23 billion Three Gorges Dam, which was completed in 2006. The government says the dam is the best way to end centuries of deadly annual floods and to provide energy to fuel China’s economic boom. Critics argue that it cost too much, forced 1.4 million people from their homes unnecessarily and could increase the risk of landslides, earthquakes and damage to the Yangtze’s ecology.
Patricia Adams, the head of Probe International, a Toronto-based environmental group that campaigned against the Three Gorges, said the Xinjiang scheme was «more the product of propaganda than serious science.»
«I would say the project is uneconomic and impractical-one that only a government undisciplined by markets and public oversight would ever contemplate, let alone implement,» she said.
«This isn’t a serious attempt to meet real water needs and solve real environmental problems and it would be a terrible waste of money that the Chinese people can ill afford.»
Rivers-without-Boundaries would not discuss this project, but in several Chinese media we found that articles advocating new water transfers argue that it seems to be more feasible than transfer of Halaha (Khalkh) River into Xilingol mining area and more effective than transfer of Hailaer River into Dalai (Hulun) Lake… More than that some articles hint that new transfers could serve the same purpose as those ill-fated water infrastructure projects in Dauria. On one hand, sea-water transfer to Xinjiang seems absolutely impractical to us. But on the other hand China should seriously consider how to expand use of sea-water to fulfill its growing water needs. Otherwise all its rivers and lakes are doomed.
Fish is hung for sale during the fish harvest festival at the frozen Hulun Nur Lake in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Dec. 27, 2010. The fish harvest festival kicked off here Monday as an activity of the 12th China-Russia-Mongolia Snow and Ice Festival, attracting tourists home and abroad. (Xinhua/Wang Zewei)