ULAANBAATAR - The Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold
mine in the southern Gobi desert in Mongolia has
become a symbol of a looming crisis: a limited
water supply that could be exhausted within a
decade, seriously threatening the lives and
livelihoods of the local population.
Tolgoi is one of the world's largest copper
deposits and has attracted major investors over
the years, from Robert Friedland of Ivanhoe
Capital Corp to the mining giant Rio Tinto, which
now holds a majority stake in the investment,
while the Mongolian government controls just 34%
of the project.
Local communities fear
that returns on investments will take precedence
over their own subsistence, while
heightening the regions
acute water shortage.
A 2010 World Bank
water assessment report for the southern Gobi
region projected a "lifespan" for water resources
based on the number of mining projects in the
pipeline, as well as a study of the region's
growing population whose primary occupation is
herding and rearing livestock.
sparsely populated region, which consists of three
aimags (provinces) occupying a combined area of
350,000 square kilometers, is home to 3.8 million
livestock: 120,000 camels, 260,000 horses, 100,000
cows, and 3.4 million sheep and goats. Together
these animals require an estimated 31,600 cubic
meters of water daily.
among the 150,000 residents in rural and urban
settings across the southern Gobi is estimated at
10,000 cubic meters per day.
herders must share a limited water supply with
numerous mines. A 2009 World Bank report found
that mining exploration licenses cover 55% of this
area. Omongovi province, for instance, "has 63
licenses issued for extraction and 400 licenses
Though not all these
licenses will be granted, the copper extraction
process guzzles so much water that locals have
good reason to worry: the World Bank assessment
found that in 2010, Oyu Tolgoi used about 67,000
cubic meters of water a day, while the
government-owned Tavan Tolgoi coal mine consumed
76,000 cubic meters daily.
director of the Ministry of Environment and Green
Development, told IPS that Oyu Tolgoi's water
usage is closely monitored and does not exceed the
maximum allowance of 870 liters per second for the
construction phase. But the fact remains that each
mine's water consumption was more than double that
of all the livestock in the entire region.
Basing its projections on the total number
of mines in the area, World Bank researchers
concluded that current known water resources could
last just 10 to 12 years, unless additional
sources are promptly located and utilized.
Another option would be to divert water
from the Orkhon River, considered a "partially
renewable" source, experts say. The environment
ministry has clarified that the "first priority is
for drinking water supply for locals, herders and
mining workers", but others fear that the mines
will consume more than all these three combined.
Alternative water sources In
2003, managers of the Oyu Tolgoi located a saline
aquifer some 35 kilometers away from the mine. The
pipeline connecting this aquifer to the project is
already going through the commissioning stage.
Mark Newby, principal water resources
advisor for Oyu Tolgoi, said that national
authorities gave the miners permission to use just
20% of the water over a 40-year period, thus
ensuring that 80% of the aquifer remains, as per
regulations set by the Mongolian Water Authority.
The aquifer is not expected to impact the shallow
herder wells that dot the desert, nor the large
fresh-water aquifer on which the nearby town of
Tavan Tolgoi, on the other hand, does not have
access to a saline aquifer and might initially use
fresh water sources such as Lake Balgas, also used
by herders, or rely on the river diversion project
until other sources are located.
mining and human rights conference held last month
in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, provided a platform
for herders, NGOs and local officials in the
southern Gobi region to voice their concerns about
the project to the central government.
Chondmani Dagva, governor of the Dungovi
province, which lies directly north of the
Omnigovi aimag, lamented his inability to halt the
rapid clearance of mining licenses. He complained
that local authorities have little power to
protect their constituencies, given that mining
licenses are issued in the capital.
Herders, whose voices have been almost
completely silenced in the rush to develop the
region's mining sector, simply expressed disbelief
at the scale and possible impact of the projects.
One herder, representing 4,000 people from his
soum, or sub-district, where four mines are
operating, said he fears not being to retain his
camels and his livelihood.
"If that fifth
mine opens, there will be no more livelihoods in
my soum," he said.
Sara Jackson, a PhD
candidate in geography at the Toronto-based York
University who is researching the impact of the
Oyu Tolgoi on herders, said that a herder had told
her that "the mining companies are telling us to
have fewer animals, so basically they are telling
us to be poor".
Herders have also hinted
that corruption affected relations between local
authorities and the mining companies. In 2011,
Transparency International ranked the country 2.7
out of 10, two places away from "highly corrupt".
But the mines are lucrative enough to
drown out locals' concerns. Oyu Tolgoi alone is
expected to contribute about 30% of Mongolia's
gross domestic product by the time the project is
up and running in 2013.
It is unlikely
that residents in the southern Gobi region will
share in the spoils of these extraction projects.
Khanbogd, the soum located closest to Oyu Tolgoi,
is very poor in comparison to Ulaanbaatar, which
has been the recipient of generous government
According to local researchers,
Khanbogd receives the smallest revenue from the
central government of any soum or aimag.