Alarming prospect of water shortage in the Gobi

26th of 9, 2018

D.Chandmani, Head of the Altai Uvur Gobi River Basin Authority, tells G.Iderkhangai that lack of enough water in the southern Gobi is an issue of concern for not just the mines there. There are options to stop the situation getting critical but not much can be done without government support, which is lacking.  

How large is the Altai Uvur Gobi river basin area?
The largest of the 29 river basins of Mongolia, the Altai Uvur Gobi river basin in the south covers 11 percent of the total area of the country. With little surface water, groundwater must be used to meet the water needs of the area. It spreads across 20 soums in Umnugobi, Gobi-Altai, Bayankhongor, and Uvurkhangai aimags, covering the whole area of seven, and parts of 14 others, including their centres. Some 37.4 percent of the basin is in Umnugobi aimag, another 36.9 percent in Gobi-Altai, 23.6 percent in Bayankhongor, and the remaining 2.1 percent in Uvurkhangai. The strategically important mines in the basin include Nariinsukhait coal mine in the Umnugobi, Khotgor coal mine in Bayankhongor, and Tayannuur iron ore mine in the Gobi-Altai.

What are your main responsibilities?
Our main job since our establishment in 2014 has been to locate and identify groundwater and surface water sources. We regularly move around the entire territory of the basin and in these four years have recorded some 5,300 wells, 1,200 springs, 19 mineral water sources, 62 small streams, and 75 lakes. There are certainly more water points which we are yet to find. It is not easy work.
 For example, Segs Tsagaan Bogd is 200 km from one side to the other, with almost no people, and locating water in such areas needs the cooperation of citizens and environmental protection staff.

Why is the southern Gobi losing its groundwater?
First Iet me give a few figures. Mongolia has altogether 609.5 cubic km of water resource, of which 500 cubic km is lake water and cannot be taken away. Of the remaining 109.5 cubic km, 63 cubic km is mostly permanent snow and glaciers, impossible to use as water, 34.6 cubic km can be used in summer, and 10.8 cubic km is groundwater.

This groundwater meets 85 percent of Mongolia’s total water consumption. Most of it is in the Khangai region while the Gobi region has few water sources. Water usage in the southern Gobi already exceeds the capacity of these sources. A groundwater source is identified after exploration and drilling. 

Currently 53 such sources or deposits, such as Balgasyn Ulaan Nuur, Galbyn Gobi, Borzongin Gobi, and Naimdain Khundii are recorded in the southern Gobi. Their total approved resources have been put at 140,417.3 cubic metres/day, while the probable resources are estimated to be 343,105.3 cu m/d. Of these 53 deposits, 38 hold 60,670.1 cu m/d clean water suitable for human use, while 15 are mineral-rich and have 79,747.2 cu m/d. Thus we can take 140,000 cu m for our daily use, but only 60,700 cu m of this is fit for human needs as the rest is salty and hard water.

Only 5 percent of the total groundwater available can be used for industrial purposes. More than half of the 53 groundwater deposits, yielding 70,000 cu m/d, are in Umnugobi aimag, but overuse of the resources is responsible for groundwater shortage.  
Some experts have calculated, after analyzing data, that by 2020 water shortage in the Gobi region would reach 204,513 cu m/d (2,367 litre/second). A way has to be found to meet the deficit. The matter becomes more urgent as mines like Oyu Tolgoi, Tavan Tolgoi, and Nariinsukhait are expanding day by day, needing more and more water. The prospect of a large-scale shortage is alarming.

It is true that further exploration will most likely find fresh groundwater sources but they are unlikely to meet the ever rising demand. So the priority right now is to collect the rain water in Khangai and bring it to where needed.

Replenishing groundwater could take anything from 10,000 to one million years. We can survive without gold and copper but not without water. So we should waste no time. If no remedy is found, water shortage in the Gobi region will reach critical proportions in 2025, and by 2030 demand will exceed the capacity the supply sources. Fresh exploration licences are to be granted and at least in a fair number of cases, extraction would follow. In terms of the environment, that is not good thinking. 

More and more mines in South Gobi will be going in for their own processing plant, as Mongolyn Alt has done. How do you plan to monitor their water usage?

The Nariinsukhait mine is in our basin, in an area with very poor groundwater resources. We should take more control of their consumption. There is some water in Gurvantes soum, but it is earmarked for that area’s domestic consumption, with no permission for industrial use. I have emphasized this fact to mining companies. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism gives companies the permission to use water from specified sources. Based on this, we sign a cooperation agreement with them, collect the water fee and put it into the local budget. Currently mining companies draw water from 5 wells, all with a capacity to yield between 5 and 8 litres/second. These are not large sources and right now we have no water shortage.

The Altai Uvur Gobi Basin Authority takes its responsibility to monitor the use of wells seriously. We drill holes near them and equipment to measure the water level is installed in them. We also monitor the water and air pressures, the water quality and temperature. Observations are taken four times a day and carefully noted. The information is saved on the office server and a copy goes to the central server of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. All this started at the end of 2016.

The water level goes down as mining companies use more and more water but as yet there is no call for alarm, as the level returns to normal at night when the usage is low. Generally, mining companies in our area pay MNT400 million per year for their water use. Processing plants use subsoil water and recycle it. This is a good thing, given the limited capacity of the wells.
The groundwater would remain at an acceptable level if around 80 percent of the water used in mines is recycled and the rest comes from new sources. Mining companies with processing plants must invest in technology to carefully monitor evaporation of subsoil water and dewatering mines.

The Government plans to construct a copper smelter in Khanbogd soum of Umnugovi aimag. Given the planned expansion of Oyu Tolgoi, will the area have sufficient groundwater for the smelter?
Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi are outside our remit. Our basin administration is responsible for issues related to water resources and consumption in the Galba-Uush, Doloodyn Gobi area. Speaking as an academic who was involved in the work of identifying the groundwater reserves of the Oyu Tolgoi deposit, I would say that Oyu Tolgoi has consumed 100% of available groundwater reserves. The professional council at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has let them increase their water consumption to 918 l/s even though it had been set at 870 l/s in 2008. We don’t know how the increase was allowed. Oyu Tolgoi has installed equipment for water withdrawal at 1001 l/s. This is why I say the available groundwater reserves have been exhausted 100%.

As for the copper smelter, Mongolia certainly needs this plant but the Gobi doesn’t have the water for it. And mind you, when I talked about the 200,000 cu m of underground water shortage by 2020, I was thinking only of Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi, not any smelter.

This is why we have to urgently implement the Orkhon Gobi, the Kherlen Gobi and the Ongi Gol projects. Discussions are also taking place on how to use Ulaanbaatar’s gray water for industrial purposes.

The Government is committed to the Orkhon Gobi, Kherlen Gobi and Ongi Gol projects. Are they being seriously studied?
The process has just begun. We are losing so much time, with such studies under discussion since 1997. There has been no feasibility study of any of the three projects as yet. We hear that talks have been held with the Chinese Government about the Kherlen Gobi project, but I do not know of any unit working on it.

There is a feeling that the way the issue of groundwater use is dealt with shows a lack of coordination, and the decisions so far taken have also been poorly implemented. Is this true?
Everything is fine on paper but, unfortunately, there is little to show on the ground. The State policy on ecology was approved in 1997. Later, some national security concerns were included in this, and the concept of sustainable development until 2030 was approved in 2016. The national programme on water was approved in 1998 and reviewed and updated in 2010 and so on and so on. Many policy decisions, concepts and programmes have included the development of the Orkhon Gobi and the Kherlen Gobi projects, but none of these has been implemented.

A water resource management plan, a wide-ranging policy document, was adopted in 2013, after the Dutch Government had promised to fund the work. This document also included details on how to implement the Orkhon Gobi and the Kherlen Gobi projects. Unfortunately, we are still talking about studying these projects, with no indication of when they will be implemented.

The 2010 Government decision to use water from Balgasyn Ulaan Nuur for Tavan Tolgoi operations was later rejected by the Citizens’ Representative Khural of Umnugobi aimag. Now the Government has again decided to use water from the lake. How are the locals reacting to this?
The lake in Khankhongor soum is one of the 53 groundwater deposits in Umnugobi and is also the youngest and the deepest of them. It is close to Dalanzadgad and as a source of drinking water, it cannot be used in mining, even when acknowledging the huge economic benefits of large-scale mining in the aimag.

All this mining has raised the population of the aimag to 62,000, some 30,000 of them living in Dalanzadgad alone. Both the number and the city’s water needs are going to keep on increasing, and I am sure the locals will again refuse to let the lake water be used in mines. In any case, using groundwater, especially from drinking water sources, is never a good idea.

Do you notice any change in our approach to and understanding of proper management  of groundwater and surface water use?
Good management entails long-term planning, and proper use means ensuring there is enough water left for the future generation. I am not suggesting drastically curtailing present consumption. What is needed is sensible rainwater harvesting by constructing both small ponds and large reservoirs, and dams where possible, without using up the small springs in the Altai Mountains.

For instance, we had the Gobi-Altain Tugrug and the Sagsai rivers in Altai Inner Gobi. Neither was deep and people used to walk across them. It was decided to take the two rivers to Khaya, which is under Eej Khairkhan, and thus increase their flow. A sand dam was built in the narrowest part of the two mountains of Tseel soum. I prepared the first technical blueprint for the 36-metre dam in 1981 after my graduation, and Mongolian engineers built it between 1983 and 1986, to store 3 million cu m of water which then flows out through 23 km of channels and pipes.

This allows pumps in 600 hectares of land to operate without using any electricity, helping grow wheat and vegetables. Wildlife also uses the water. The facility is ranked among the top 5 sand dams in Asia and among the top 10 in the world. Such systems are replicable in the high mountain zones to ultimately bring water into the Gobi and, when built, will become a huge gift to the future generation.

If we could build something like this, we should also be able to implement the Kherlen Gobi and the Orkhon Gobi projects, but only with support from the State. False perceptions are being spread on drawing water from the Khangai region, when the truth is that less than 1% of the water from the rivers will accumulate in the proposed dam, and it will all be from harvested rain water.
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