Mongolia’s Dilemma: Who Gets The Water?
Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan and nomadic herders, is in the midst of a remarkable transition. Rich in coal, gold and copper, this country of fewer than 3 million people in Central Asia is riding a mineral boom that is expected to more than double its GDP within a decade. The rapid changes simultaneously excite and unnerve many Mongolians, who hope mining can help pull many out of poverty, but worry it will ravage the environment and further erode the nation’s distinctive, nomadic identity.
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The Central Asian nation of Mongolia has untold riches in copper, coal and gold, which could help many of its nearly 3 million people — more than one-third of whom live in poverty.
But mining is also reshaping Mongolia’s landscape and nomadic culture. Camel and goat herders worry that new mega-mines will siphon off precious water in an area that’s already suffering from the effects of climate change.
Mijiddorj Ayur, whose livestock graze near the Oyu Tolgoi mine, tends camels in a stretch of Mongolia’s South Gobi province that’s a moonscape of sand and gravel. He relies on the animals for meat, wool and milk, and they rely on hand-pumped well water to survive.
“When we come to the well, we can see the level of the well water is 8 inches lower than it used to be,” says Mijiddorj, 76, who wears a golden, double-breasted robe called a deel and a brimmed felt hat.
Mijiddorj — Mongolians typically go by one name — says the well water has dropped in the last several years because of lower rainfall, while the grasslands are shrinking because of rising temperatures from climate change.
Now, he sees another potential threat: Oyu Tolgoi, a giant mine that will need huge amounts of water to process copper ore. The company has already drilled test wells near where Mijiddorj’s camels drink.
“My greatest fear is we won’t have water,” he says. “I don’t care about the gold or the copper, I’m just afraid there won’t be water.”