Dr J. Dalai, Director of the National
Water Centre, an NGO, and General Director of the Prestige Group, tells
N. Ariuntuya of MMJ that water scarcity fears are exaggerated and a
well-designed and properly implemented national water consumption policy
is essential for healthy economic development. How much water reserve does Mongolia have?
if global studies list Mongolia among the 20 countries with the least
water reserves, our situation is quite reasonable compared to that in
other desert-like countries. When studying in Central Asia, I lived in a
place called Golodnaya Steppe (Hungry Steppe) on the banks of Sirdariya
and Amudariya rivers and learnt very well how difficult it is to be in a
place with no water.
Our country cannot be counted among those with
no water, but we shall top any list of countries that mismanage their
water reserves. We have been given enough water from heaven, but most of
our reserves flow out to the north along the Selenge. More than ten
rivers originating in Mongolia head out to the north. A certain amount
seeps into the Pacific Ocean along the Kherlen, the Onon, and the Ulz
rivers, while five or six rivers flow to the east. This means that a
natural resource, more expensive than gold and gem stones, leaves our
country every minute and every second.
This, then, is our situation:
we do have water reserves but they leak out. Therefore, Mongolia needs
to save its surface water. This is where our water management policy
should be directed, especially now when industrial use is dramatically
increasing consumption. Previously, most of our water went to feed our
The issue gets complicated when it involves consumption of
international water, which is water consumption from rivers that run
across countries. For example, the Danube flows through more than ten
countries and there have been many conflicts and quarrels around it, at
times leading even to war. In the 1970s in Central Asia, it was common
for water gates to be guarded by people with guns.
not yet realised the seriousness of the problem, or its ramifications.
Maybe this is because of our traditionally low personal consumption of
water and the fact that we do not have many large industrial factories,
our agriculture has not developed much, and our livestock are fed with
water from wells. However, people’s perception of water usage has
recently begun to change and we have started looking at it differently
following the growth of mining which consumes water in vast amounts in
desert-like regions with water shortage. People are becoming more and
more aware of the need to reduce water consumption and even of the value
of water recycling. It is right to use water efficiently. As for me, I
brush my teeth with water from a cup.
However, such small savings do
not count for much on the national scene where the issue is one of
large consumption of water. A country with rational water consumption
patterns will develop and flourish, with a healthy and hygienically
clean population. We cannot call a country developed, if its people do
not regularly brush their teeth or take a shower.Large mining
projects are being taken up in the minerals-rich but water-starved
southern region of Mongolia. What kind of policy should we have on water
usage in mining?
One of the three main Gobis of Mongolia has no
water. The Steppe in general has almost no water. Only the forested
areas and the highlands have running water when there’s precipitation.
But this is also water that leaves the country.
There is very little
precipitation in the southern region. Additionally, desertification is
rapid because of global warming. Meanwhile, large mining and energy
projects with large water needs have started being implemented here.
Withdrawing large amounts of underground water to meet their needs will
further deplete reserves, accelerate desertification, and increase water
salinity. Only small and limited amounts of water can be used but only
under careful monitoring. Water at a depth of 1000 metres cannot be
replenished; it absorbs the water in the soil, thus leading to
The Government adopted the Water Restoration- XXI
Programme in 2004, which targeted a consumption ratio between
underground and surface water at 65:35 in 2010, 55:45 in 2015, and 50:50
in 2025. When the goal was set, the ratio was 80:20. Unfortunately, it
is 90:10 today. The programme was never pursued. We have reached a
dangerous situation where unless we change our mindset on water
consumption, we will deplete our limited resources in a short period of
time. We have to impose a long-term ban on large-scale consumption of
underground water in the Gobi region.
People ignore such warnings. I
always say that one should plan one’s water usage first and then one’s
project plan, but people talk about the mineral resource first. Our
practice should be to prioritize water issues; all infrastructure
development and related issues should be considered based on the water
reserve situation. Issues of road, energy, communication can be solved
if there is adequate money, but no amount of money can create water.Then how should we solve the water issues in the southern region?
proposing viable solutions for water-related issue should be taken up
on a priority basis. I initiated the project Kherlen- Gobi to save water
from the rivers that flow out to other countries. The idea was to build
a pool near Baganuur to store water, of which 4%-5% would be sent to
Choir-Sainshand-Zamiin Uud-Tsagaan Suvarga for use in the gobi, with the
remaining 95%-96% to be used by people who make their living from the
basins of the Kherlen River, to generate power, and to meet the needs of
industry and agriculture. The project would revive and replenish the
Kherlen and prevent it from natural deterioration. There was big
resistance and the whole thing was politicized, and the project never
took off. I wish vested interests could be kept away from legitimate
water projects in the national interest. This project will truly benefit
the Kherlen river, and the people in Khentii and Dornod. My hope is
that I shall receive more and more popular support as conditions in the
southern region worsen.
I am grateful to MP Bat-Erdene for his
stubborn opposition to my project as that made me more determined and
set me thinking of a way out of the impasse. Finally, I split it into
two parts. One of them, the Orkhon-Gobi part, will provide water to two
aimag centres and soums and will reach water to Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan
Tolgoi in the Gobi. It will also provide water to 150 farms.
grateful that the project is not politicized. The main thing now is to
start work without losing any more time. The Ministry of Nature,
Environment, Green Development and Tourism is working to implement the
Orkhon-Gobi project. An action plan was made with the help of a grant
from the World Bank. First tenders have also been announced.
are conducting a feasibility study of the “Kherlen-Gobi” with our own
funds, and when this is completed I shall talk to the Government as well
as to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. I shall make a special mention
of the availability of water in Altai. The UN has set a goal to halve
the number of people without access to basic sanitary services and to
safe and regular water supply by the end of this year. President
Elbegdorj has more than once said that we should use surface water, and
not underground water from now on. I shall demand to know why these
goals cannot be met.
I do not own any land or any livestock. I do not
use water except when I take a shower. I am from Tes of Uvs aimag and
was raised by the Tes river. My mother once asked me why I had spent all
of nine years studying water. I told her about global water shortage.
She was surprised, as we lived in an area of abundant water, so I told
her that even in Mongolia, let alone in other parts of the world, there
are many places that have no water. She felt very bad about the people
who lived in those places and said that she would like to provide water
to them. I have made these words of her my life’s mission.
needs this project, not me. There is a projection that water consumption
will rise 50 times in a few decades. At the same time, surface water is
evaporating because of global warming. The situation will get worse and
worse, if we do not adopt corrective measures under a long-term policy.
The name Gobi will disappear and all will be desert. Trust me, this is
the word of a science professional. Are projects like
Orkhon-Gobi and Kherlen-Gobi really feasible? Will it really be possible
to regulate the river flow? Has something similar been tried anywhere?
What chances are there that the river will just dry up?
It is not
that we are going to transfer all the water in the Orkhon and the
Kherlen to the Gobi. We will dig a lake-like reservoir to store water in
a year of good rainfall and use it when there is less water. Flow
regulation basically means that when there is more than adequate water
in a river, we shall save that extra bit in one or more reservoirs and
put that stored water back into the rivers when they do not have enough.
Flow regulation is nothing but scientifically planned intervention to
ensure even flow in a river, never excessive and never too little. At
present, rivers flow out of Mongolia into the Dalai Lake in China, and I
wish every Mongolian sees how the Chinese enjoy themselves in the
abundance of water in that lake. If they follow our rivers to the north,
Mongolians will be amazed to see how much water is used for the Bratsk
and Irkutskaya hydropower plants. I do not know why people fail to
understand that we have a right to better use water originating in
Given the current extent of desertification and the
drying up of so many water courses it is essential for us in Mongolia to
immediately start building as many reservoirs as possible on a river.
Mongolian rivers are often in flood after heavy rain, and this we must
turn to our advantage. We save and store the excess water that the river
cannot carry. Instead of allowing it to overflow the banks, we keep it
for later use in the dry season or in a year of scanty rainfall to allow
the river to have a constant flow.
People around the world have been
using this method of flow regulation for about 100 years now.
Altogether almost 25,000 such reservoirs have been built in Turkey,
South Korea, and Japan, all countries smaller than ours but with 10 to
15 times more precipitation. Mongolia, in the heart of Central Asia, is a
dry land with 250 mm of precipitation per year, which drops to 0-50mm
in the Gobi. We have to build these reservoirs, and lots of them.
have witnessed myself how other countries have built lakes to make sure
the oceans do not get all the water from their rivers. But here in
Mongolia, we have so much politics when we talk about building one lake
on a river that is 1000 km long! In the 19th and 20th centuries protests
in Europe saw such projects delayed for 20 to 70 years, but then sense
dawned and they regretted the lost time. Is there no other way to provide water to the Gobi?
the moment, no. Maybe other ways will be found in the long run. Maybe
100 years later, we shall take up a project to provide water to the
Orkhon from the Selenge and provide the Gobi with water from the Orkhon.
Kherlen can be supplied with water from the Onon. Why do you
wish to talk to the UN Secretary-General about water supply to Altai
city? Is there any related project? And what projects, besides Kherlen-
Gobi and Orkhon- Gobi, are you involved with?
I graduated from three
universities majoring in hydro technical construction and water reserve.
As an engineer working in the field for 34 years, I am trying hard to
execute four projects for my country’s development and future: I even
mortgaged my apartment to get the money for my projects’ pre-studies and
parts of their feasibility study. Besides these two, I have taken up
two other projects named Taishir-Altai and Tuul-Ulaanbaatar.
city has had water problems for three decades or more and Taishir-Altai
offers a solution. Purified water will be brought to the city from the
Taishir hydroelectric plant via a pipeline. The pipeline will be the
first of its kind in Mongolia as it is a high pressure reinforced glass
plastic pipeline that has 100 years of life. Our company has already
imported the pipes.
I spent one night in Altai city once while I was
travelling through the western aimags with my family. When I took a
shower, my whole body, including the skin and hair, looked white as the
water had a high salt content. This is why there is so much liver
disease in Altai and the average life expectancy is almost 10 years
lower than in the rest of Mongolia. Residents get their water from two
wells, and sometimes the water level drops so much that the pumps cannot
reach it. Houses do not get water after 8 pm. It is not just a place
with acute water shortage, the quality of the water is also very poor.
It was not possible to get water from the Taishir plant 50 km away, as
there was no pipeline, and water tankers would be too expensive.
was the genesis of the Taishir-Altai project in my mind. I reviewed
five ideas and chose one. There was no time to lose, so we made a
feasibility study and the environmental impact evaluation in
collaboration with some German experts with our own money. This is the
project that is now under execution. Unfortunately, the new aimag
governor has built a factory of his own that produces bottled water with
a picture of him.
During German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit,
agreements were signed with the Ministry of Nature, Environment, Green
Development and Tourism to help carry the project forward. German
financial institutions have offered 12-year loans at 6% interest, but no
interest will be due in the initial two years of construction. Our
budget is quite reasonable. In any case, I designed the project,
prepared its feasibility study and had it approved. Now it is the
The other project of mine is related
to water supply in Ulaanbaatar, where you all know how bad the situation
is. The main goal of the Tuul-Ulaanbaatar project is to increase the
supply and also improve the quality of water in Ulaanbaatar, while
protecting the Tuul river, which has in recent years been looking like a
stream in the spring months, so much water is taken out of it. The
measures taken under the project will make water supply in Ulaanbaatar
reliable but it will also generate hydropower, all by natural pressure
without using electricity or any pump. This is a terrific project and
given the quite low operation costs, it can be a model for the world.
implementation of the project will create a favourable environment for
the ecosystem on the river banks. The recently built 20 wells, in
collaboration with the Japanese, have not been useful, but I hope there
will now be no rumour about how the Tuul river was destroyed with
Japanese taxpayers’ money. The water levels of the wells will go higher
once the project is implemented. However, no new wells will be built and
some that have been built will be covered up and their land used in
some way. Altogether, the number of wells built in the river basin will
come down dramatically.
Reservoirs will be built on the Terelj arm
or on the main course of the Tuul. It would be more sensible to build on
both at the same time. There will be two different types of stored
water, “very clean” and “clean”, the former to be used in the kitchen
and the other for industrial purposes. The project aims to supply water
to Nalaikh, Zuunmod city in Tuv aimag, Maidar city, Khushigt Valley
airport, and its smart city with 200,000 people, and the CHP5.
have completed the pre-study, and shall be moving on to work on the
feasibility study. We shall begin by spending our own money, and keep
looking for a bank loan. The work will progress faster once we get the
loan. The first months of the year are already gone, and there can be no
exploration work in November and December because of the cold. The
tender announcement will take some more time, so altogether not much
will be done this year.
I have contacted the World Intellectual
Property Rights Organization regarding these four projects and obtained
confirmation from Mongolian intellectual property authorities. If these
four projects get implemented, I would like to retire.Oyu Tolgoi
already uses 870 l/sec, making it the largest water consumption in the
Gobi region. This will rise to 1300l/sec when underground mining starts.
Is there enough underground water for this and what about reusing 80%
of the water?
Water use should be carefully monitored, but this is a
very sophisticated exercise, and the government has not set up any
mechanism yet. The state of the underground water reserve can be checked
from the Ulaanbaatar offices of the Ministry of Environment. Is there any organization in Mongolia that provides water policy and integrated management?
has become an important issue. Water management steps have a pivotal
role in the development of the mining sector and infrastructure, but
little or nothing has been down in the past few years. The inaction
started when the Ministry of Water was turned into the Water Institute
and its18 agencies were abolished. There is no longer a water equipment
repair centre, no technical college, and no Water department at the
Science and Technology University.
There are only a few private
companies like ours dealing with water, but nothing responsible for
integrated management of water. We can also say that there are too many
with the responsibility. Issues related to water reserves have been
assigned to the Ministry of Nature, Environment, Green development and
Tourism, issues related to water supply to industry and agriculture to
the Ministry of Industry and Agriculture, issues related to water for
mining and energy to the Ministry of Mining and Energy, and issues
related to city water supply to the Ministry of Construction and Urban
Development. This is just one too many, and equals nothing.
National Water Centre was set up to coordinate action on water issues
and to resolve disputes between industries. We do not see any active
coordination between ministries and coordination between industries is
difficult because there are too many ministries involved in water
management or because there is no one owner. Major responsibilities
including hydro technical construction, reservoir building, and water
flow regulation have not been assigned to any ministry and no one takes
responsibility for these.
State-owned Mongol Us was established in
2012 to be responsible for water reserve management, hydro technical
construction that is state owned or funded by the state budget, and
their maintenance. However, its functional ability is affected by a
limited budget. If this is corrected, it will confer status on the
organization, and produce results. We can also establish a Hydro
Technical Construction Department at the Ministry of Construction and
I take proper water management very seriously and
so formed the National Water Centre, a non-government organization. We
have 15 members, and people from other NGOs are on our board.
would like to say at the end that our country’s sustainable development
is directly dependent on sound water reserve management and regulation. A
country’s water reserves usually decline because of the wrong policy
followed and mismanagement of the resource, and not because it had
inadequate reserves in the first place. Thus, action should be taken
immediately to use surface water in an ecological and economic manner. I
would like to remind you over and over again that if our Gobi turns
into desert within a few years from now, there will not be much to do
even with a lot of money in hand.