“It will not be easy to meet mining’s growing demand for water”

29th of 10, 2014

One of the highlights of the “Oil and Oil Shale Mongolia” conference in Ulaanbaatar in September was a speech by B.Enkhbaatar, head of the project to support investment in mining infrastructure development, at a session devoted to infrastructure and the work force. We give below a summary of parts of his speech titled “Water basin management and strengthening the management of deep water basins”, and also his answers to some questions from the audience.

Mongolians say that water is a “wish granting jewel”. Mongolia’s freshwater reserve accounts for 0.000000044% of the total freshwater reserve of the earth. We can see that this is not very much. Moreover, 70%-80% of Mongolia’s total precipitation falls on the mountainous area in the northern part of the country, and 90% of the rivers formed from that water flows out of the country. Mongolians don’t use the surface water and 80% of the water that is used by most of the industrial entities is underground water, which is just 2% of the total water resource of Mongolia.

In May, 2012, the Law on the Environment was passed. It identifies a total of 29 water basins in the territory of Mongolia. These are not demarcated by any human agency but are entirely natural structures. Water is scarce in the Gobi region where there are only three basins.
As part of our project, we are presently working to support basins No.17, 18 and 20. A working group has been set up for each basin and based on their assessment, the water fee for mining and other entities is determined. The 2012 law increased the underground water fee. Naturally this fee is more in the Gobi region than in the northern region where water is plentiful. In the Gobi area, water used for industrial purposes costs MNT960 per cubic metre.

We have estimated the total water reserve in the Gobi region. Accordingly, in Umnugovi aimag, 99.000 m3 is the total amount of water that can be used by all mineral deposits together in a day. In future, many present entities will expand their operation and there will also be new deposits and more export. But the water resource in the Gobi will not increase and will thus not be enough for this. Infrastructure development will also need more water.

The total water that can be pumped from underground is approximately 307.000 m3 a year. If more is pumped, the underground water reserve will be depleted. How, then, can the increased demand be met? This question is critical for the Government as well as for investors.
Different countries adopt different methods of utilising surface water. The one we are currently studying involves adjusting the flow of the Orkhon River, and then collecting and pumping some of the water to the Gobi region. We are now in the second year of our study and the results will be clear soon. We are planning to build the water basin for this Orkhon-Gobi project 60 km north from Khishig-Undur soum, Bulgan aimag at the Orkhon River. Our present guess is that 6% of the river flow or 2500 litre/second can be pumped to the south.

Muammar Gaddafi brought sea water to the Libyan desert along 500 km-600 km of water pipes. However, the most experienced country in this field is Australia. In 1990, the Government there borrowed a huge amount of money from British banks to implement a project to pump water 500 km away. The result was a mining boom in Western Australia. The biggest gold deposit in the world is in the central area of the country which is a desert. The uranium and aluminium deposits in that area also use water brought from a great distance.

Successful implementation of the Orkhon-Gobi project will require $1 billion of investment but since we can’t develop mining without water, the money must be found. The Government is exploring how this huge amount can be accessed.

How will we meet the water demands of the petroleum sector?
We have to adopt efficient water recycling technology. A good example of this can be seen at Ukhaa Khudag deposit which reuses 80%-90% of the water. There is legal provision for imposing water pollution fees over and above water fees. This an industry has to pay if it lets used water go waste. Reusing the water means one would be exempt from this payment.

Can we not add to underground water accumulation? What are the chances for this, especially at basins No.19 and 20 in the Gobi area?
The water in the Gobi region has been collected over millions of years. It is estimated that only 1 mm of water is accumulated from 30 mm to 40 mm of precipitation in the Gobi area, so it is futile to expect fresh water accumulation there.

I was in charge of the research connected with the Orkhon-Gobi and Shuren projects for two years, and can say that there are lots of hindrances. Lake Baikal is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are accusations that our proposed projects would harm it. Environmental NGOs in both Mongolia and Russia are united in stalling any progress on the projects and things are pretty stagnant right now. International financial organisations will stay away from the projects and the Mongolian Government will have to look for other sources.
When Russians built four power plants at Angara, they raised Lake Baikal’s water level by 3 metres, mainly because in the winter the lake freezes up to 1.5 metres so they wanted to expand the freezing area. They also wanted to make provisions for sustainable operation of future power plants. Half of the inflow into the Baikal comes from the Selenge River. Environmental experts fear that this will decrease if our plans are implemented, while power experts think the opposite. They even think that this would help prevent floods in Mongolia. All conflicting arguments are planned to be discussed at the next meeting of Mongolia-Russia Inter-Governmental Commitssion in November.

How do we know that underground water is only 2% of Mongolia’s water reserve? Has there been any hydro-geological survey?
Before the 1990s, Mongolia had a ministry for water but during the economic crisis following the transition, the issue of water was almost forgotten. The figures I gave are mostly from before 1990, but I have also used results of later research and exploration work, often conducted by the private sector. To supply water to Erdenet City, ten water holes were drilled along the Selenge River and four different wells are used to distribute the water. Yearly water consumption used to be 60.000 m3, but this has come down to 40.000 m3 following installation of water metres in houses and also because the Erdenet Factory is now using water recycling technology. This shows how much water it is possible to save.

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