TNC: Mongolia needs more data on its groundwater resources

4th of 11, 2013

Bruce McKenney, Strategy Director for the Nature Conservancy’s Development by Design program, tells how Mongolia can develop the green economy and minimize the mining sector’s impact on the environment.

Now, TNC is focusing on mitigating development impacts in Mongolia. In your opinion, how can we minimize mining impact on the environment? On the other hand, how do we convert our economy into the green economy?
Mongolia has a unique opportunity to plan for its sustainable future – to determine how it wants to develop and manage its vast mineral resources while securing its natural and cultural heritage for generations to come.  This starts with identifying what cannot be lost – places where mining impacts to the lands and waters are simply not acceptable because of the social, cultural, and environmental loss.  These areas should be protected.  Protection may be in a strict form, or protection may allow for low-impact land uses that do not threaten the long-term health of natural systems and the way of life.  Where mining does go forward, Mongolia should adopt international performance standards for mining and require best practices for all projects.  If companies are not willing to meet this standard, they should not be allowed to mine in Mongolia.

Given how dominant the role of mining is in the Mongolian economy, steps toward greening the economy must start with mining.  Mining should only be done in the right places and in the right ways, to minimize the social and environmental impacts.  The planning needs to be done upfront to consider the potential cumulative impacts of mining development over time.  This will support green development goals, such as ensuring important landscapes remain ecologically functional and connecting important habitat to prevent a situation where species become confined to ever-shrinking habitat “islands.”

Making Mongolia a green economy is a big challenge, but there are many good opportunities to move in the right direction.  In addition to avoiding impacts to Mongolia’s natural and cultural heritage, and requiring best management practices, the mining sector should be required to take an additional step – offsetting its impacts.  No matter how good the practices of a mining company, there will be impacts.  This “footprint” – the mining pit, roads, and associated infrastructure – is often permanent and fragments Mongolia’s beautiful landscapes.  Mongolia can have a greener future if it requires mining projects to compensate for their impacts with offsets that invest in the protection of Mongolia’s natural and cultural heritage.  

In Mongolia, crucial issues to the mining development are water resource and infrastructure base. Now, Mongolian mining sector is developing by using groundwater and transporting raw materials through not paved road. How do you advice to deal with these issues eco-friendly?
As a starting point, Mongolia needs more data on its groundwater resources.  With this information, in combination with appropriate policies, Mongolia will be better positioned to responsibly manage this precious resource.  It is a big challenge. For Mongolia’s roads and infrastructure, the paving of roads can reduce dust.  But there is much more that can be done. For example, new mining and energy projects in close proximity to each other should share roads and infrastructure to minimize impacts and limit fragmentation of the landscape.  This can save companies money.  It is also important because some of Mongolia’s most well-known species, such as the Mongolian wild ass (Khulan) and the Mongolian gazelle, require very large areas to migrate and thrive.  Each new road will fragment the landscape and further restrict the range of habitat for these species.  Other steps might include reducing traffic on specific roads during important migratory periods, providing underpasses to support species migration (where this can be demonstrated to be effective), or removing fences that prevent migration.

How do you see the future opportunities to develop green economy in Mongolia? And how do you rate our current position or level of green economy?
Mongolia has a great opportunity to develop a green economy, but given Mongolia’s very fast rate of growth, steps toward greener development need to start now.  There are many elements to a green economy.  Focusing on mining, it is clear there will be challenges.  For example, the mining and burning of coal for energy is not green.  But coal mining is a significant part of Mongolia’s economy.  So Mongolia will need to look closely at how to balance its economic and energy development, to consider and make choices about what is consistent with its vision for green development. 

What projects TNC will implement in Mongolia further? And how many projects TNC has implemented in Mongolia in the past 5 years?
The Nature Conservancy just celebrated its fifth year in Mongolia.  We are honored to be playing a role in supporting a greener future for Mongolia.  The Nature Conservancy focuses its work on high quality science and demonstrated practice on the ground.  Working with the Mongolian government, academics, and other partners, we have already completed two science-based eco-regional assessments – analyses that identify some of the most important places to protect in Mongolia for nature and people in the Eastern Steppe and Gobi regions.  At the request of the Mongolian government, we are now conducting an eco-regional assessment for the remaining Central and Western regions.  These eco-regional data can support national land-use planning and an information system for mitigation decision-making about future mining, energy, and infrastructure development.  Such a system can help with determinations about where development is or is not compatible with Mongolia’s goals for conservation, and the places to direct offset actions (compensation for impacts) to support Mongolia’s natural and cultural heritage.  The Nature Conservancy is also working on the ground, supporting the operation of TosonHulstai Nature Reserve.  We support effective conservation planning and management through involvement with regular ranger patrols, wildlife surveys, educational outreach among local herder communities and work with the reserve’s Co-management Committee.  We are grateful for the opportunity, through science and practice, to support a green future for Mongolia.

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