“We have enough water we have no real water policy”

19th of 6, 2015

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?
Even 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 livestock.

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.

Mongolians have 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 desertification.

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?
Projects 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.

I am 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.

Now we 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.

Mongolia 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 Mongolia. 

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.

I 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?
At 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.
Altai 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.

This 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 Government’s responsibility. 

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.

The 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.

We 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?
This 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. 

The 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 Urban Development.

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.

I 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.

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