Mongolian Wells and Water Transfers

Water issues in Mongolia are dictated by climate, ecosystems, and history, much the same as in Russia and China. However, due to natural water scarcity, water issues in Mongolia differ radically from those in neighboring Russia and China where water resources are more abundant.

In Mongolia, improvement of groundwater wells is the most widespread structural measure for exploitation of water resources. Depending on how planning accounts for the water requirements and spatial distribution of wildlife, repair of wells can have either positive or negative consequences for biodiversity conservation. For example, too many wells evenly distributed across the Eastern Steppe would support greater numbers of livestock that would compete with Mongolian gazelles for forage. Gazelles can better withstand water shortages that livestock, so gazelles thrive in pastures without wells where livestock cannot. In such a situation the absence of wells would be positive for gazelles, but negative for livestock. The presence of wells would have the opposite effect. Alternatively, concentrating well sites near wetlands might attract unsustainable numbers of livestock to these locations and increase grazing and trampling pressure on these habitats.

We are not aware of any sizable water management infrastructure in the Mongolian part of the Amur-Heiling River basin. However, two small hydropower stations were recently completed in other basins, the Khovt Aimag (Chanterekh River) and Goby-Altai Aimag (Zavkhun River), each with a generating capacity of about 40-50 MW.

A plan to transfer water from the Selenge and other rivers to the Goby is probably the most controversial of all currently known projects and may involve the Kherlen and Onon River basins. The Parliament on the “Development of Proposals for the Transfer of River Waters to the Gobi and the Steppe Areas Through Flow Adjustment in the Selenge, Onon, and Balj Rivers” discussed a draft resolution in March 2006. The Mongolian Water Management Agency (part of MONE) has tentatively approved a plan for water transfer from the Kherlen River to the Gobi. The plan is designed to supply water to settlements near recently developed mining sites and to support large-scale planting of a “green shelterbelt” along the edge of the desert. The plan (a part of the legacy of Soviet water engineering schemes of the 1970s) is being renovated and pushed forward by private companies linked to international mining interests. The plan appears impractical given the water scarcity in the Kherlen River basin. If implemented, the plan could cause environmental degradation and trigger a water crisis in the Upper Amur-Heilong River basin that is shared by three countries and thus eliminate opportunities to establish coordinated water-conservation policies in this thirsty region.

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