- Rise and shine for an early departure to the Gobi desert, landing in Dalanzadga.
- Take a bumpy ride across the desert floor on unpaved roads to the Three Camel Lodge, an ecologically-friendly sanctuary that also supports the local community and the preservation of traditional Mongolian culture.
- Hike the Yol Valley National Park and visit the adjacent Natural History Museum.
Report on the Environment of Mongolia, September 2016, for the Delegation for Friendship Among Women
by Mary Wallace
As I began this report on the environment of Mongolia for the new friends in the Delegation for Friendship Among Women with whom I will soon be traveling, I got out our Atlas of the World and zeroed in on Asia and began studying exactly where IS Mongolia? Ulaanbaatar, the capital, at the latitude of 47.8 N, is on roughly the same latitude as Paris, 43.0 N, St. Paul, MN, 44.9 N and Almaty, Kazakhstan, 43.2 N. Mongolia, at 603,909 Mi2, is a little smaller than Alaska at 663,300 Mi2.
Mongolia’s landscape is dominated mostly by STEPPE, vast grasslands, from the central region to the east, DESERT from the south to the west, and FOREST-STEPPE in the northern regions. The western and northern borders and central plateau are mountainous, the south and east flat, mostly steppe and “govi” or GOBI, or gravel semi-desert. In the west there is the Mongol Altai mountain range and the highest peak, Khüiten, which means “cold”, rises to 14, 355”, is located at the junction with Mongolia’s borders with China and Russia. Brian Awehali , of the Earth Island Journal, summarizes the natural landscape: ”In the countryside the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.”
Amid the beauty of these natural treasures of Mongolia, however, the country faces significant environmental challenges.
AIR: Ulaanbaatar is experiencing a rapid growth in population with more than half of the country’s population under 30 years of age. Mechanization and the number of vehicles have doubled in the last 10 years with heavy traffic in the city. Traditional coal and wood fired indoor stoves are used in the GER districts on the outskirts of the city, home to an ever increasing number of households of migrants from rural areas who come to the capital looking for jobs. These residents are exposed to soot, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants from the indoor cooking stoves. The increased industrial activity within the country includes the burning of soft coal, and airborne industrial pollution from neighboring Russia and the China.
WATER: Water pollution is a significant problem in Mongolia because the water supply is so limited. The country has only 34.8 cubic kilometers of renewable water resources, 53% of which are used for farming. Desertification is a big threat in Mongolia and will worsen if no action is taken to mitigate. Studies show that 35-40 million grazing animals is a sustainable number. However, in 2016, there are an estimated 73 million grazers, 2 horses for every Mongolian. One of the main causes of overgrazing is by goats who provide the herders with raw cashmere and a big portion of their income.
LAKES: There are 3,500 lakes in Mongolia and most have high levels of salinity. Uvs Lake is the largest lake in Mongolia and is highly saline in an endorheic basin, meaning it drains to the interior. It covers 3,350 km2 and is 759 m above sea level. The northeastern tip of the lake is located in Russia. This shallow and very saline body of water is a remainder of a huge saline sea which covered a much larger area several thousand years ago. Ganga Lake is another saltwater lake that lies in the transition zone between the southern steppes and the Gobi desert. The lake and its wetlands (total area is 32.8 km2) is an important breeding ground and resting area of endangered migratory birds, including the great crested grebe, the whooper swan, and the ruddy shelduck. Due to ongoing climate change, the lake area is shrinking.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: Przewalski’s horse, the Bactrian camel, the snow leopard, and the saiga are among 12 mammals and 14 birds which are considered endangered. The Mongolian wild horse has become extinct in the wild. In the UB POST, July 29, 2016, there appeared an article “Return of the Wild Horses” and it describes how four Przewalski horses have been transferred from Prague, Czech Republic to Mongolia. Between 2004 and 2007, 90 horses were transported to the Gobi desert, Hustain Nuruu National Park and to Khomiin Tal. This horse exchange is necessary for its survival as the Przewalski horses often suffer from consanguinity. In 1960 the horses almost completely disappeared from Mongolia and had to be reintegrated from Europe. As the Czech Ambassador explains, “This kind of horse is originally from Mongolia, and there are only a few places in the world where you can see them, so it is a matter of the heritage of the whole world.”
MINING: With an abundance of minerals, Mongolia has become a hotspot for large-scale mining companies from around the world. Often dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Central Asia”, the country is rich in untapped deposits of coal, gold, silver, tin, uranium, and “rare earth minerals” and copper in the South Gobi region. The boom in mining from 2010-2012 gave the country the nickname “Mine-Golia”. Again, Brian Awehali, ” Despite projections that the mining boom is expected to triple or quadruple the size of the Mongolia’s economy in the next five years, times are tough for most Mongolians, and the relationship between the country’s great natural resources and the wealth of its people is still to be determined.”
“Recent mining driven economic growth is causing threats to the environment and livelihood of herders,” says Enkhtuya Oidov, the Mongolia program director of the Nature Conservancy. “Land use of mining is not compatible with the Mongolian culture of cherishing the environment and ecology.”
Onodelgerekh Ganzorig is director of the Mongol Environmental Conservation, an Earth island Institute sponsored project that works to preserve the environment and cultural heritage of the country. “Half of Mongolians say ‘Yes, we want mining’. But the other half that lives off of the land says ‘No, we don’t support it, because it’s going to destroy this whole area and we’re not going to have grazing lands or pasture lands.’” So Mongolia is experiencing a struggle between environmental sustainability and economic sustainability…..with the government in the middle.
WEATHER: Mongolia has warm temperatures in summer time but an icy climate between December and March during which time the entire country is under snow and ice. Ulaanbaatar is considered the coldest capital city on earth.
What is a “zud”? A “zud”, pronounced “dzud”, is a Mongolian term for a severe winter in which large numbers of livestock die, primarily due to starvation during the severe cold weather. There are 3 kinds of Zuds: the “White Zud” with more snow than normal, the “Iron Zud” when the grassland is covered with ice, the result of rain and cold temperatures, and the “Black Zud” caused by a drought in summertime when there is less food for the animals, then followed by a cold winter. Between the years 2000 to 2002, three winters of extreme cold killed about 11 million animals, a large portion of all the country’s livestock. One-third of Mongolia’s population depends entirely on pastoral farming for its livelihood, and harsh zuds can cause economic crises and food scarcity. Mongolia keeps a National Meat Reserve because these zuds occur roughly every 7 years.
WORLD BANK OVERVIEW: The Mongolian Ministry of Nature and the Environment has been reorganized five times in the last 20 years and the World Bank overview says “deteriorating environmental situation is exacerbated by irresponsible vested interests, poor coordination among ministries and agencies, inadequate monitoring of natural resource conditions and weak enforcement of environmental regulations.”
ENVIRONMENTAL LEGISLATION: From the 1990s-2006 Mongolia adopted liberal mining regulations which spurred a wave of destruction of the country’s most vulnerable natural features, rivers and forests. By 2005 mining and exploration licenses covered approximately 40% of Mongolian territory threatening to disrupt the ecological balance nationwide. In 2007-2008 a local environmental activist, Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the Green Nobel Prize, for his work to protect rivers from mining impacts. Mukhbayar and his allies convince the Parliament in 2009 to pass a law called the “Law of the Prohibition of Mining Operations in the Headwaters of Rivers, Protected Zones of Water Reservoirs and Forested Areas,” commonly referred to as “The Law with the Long Name”. This legislation aims to set aside the most vulnerable areas associated with water resources. The law also aims to reduce conflict between miners and indigenous communities of herders. Since the passage of this Law, however, there has been an on going struggle between miners, herders, government and civil movements about the actual implementation of the Law. There have been numerous demonstrations over the years, some of them with violence, and much political jockeying.
MINING COMPANIES: The sites of Oyu Tolgoi, the giant 2.3 million ton copper-gold mine and the Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, the nearby giant 6.4 billion ton coal mine, both located in the Gobi Desert, show how the size of these mines could change Mongolia’s economy but could equally damage the environment and hurt Mongolia’s nomadic way of life. Gatsuurt is near lush green forests, mountains and the Gatsuurt River. The long-term issues for the production of these mines are energy and water.
RECENT ELECTIONS: In the most recent elections held June 29, 2016, the Mongolian opposition party, the Mongolian People’s Party, swept back in to power in landslide parliamentary elections with headlines reading, “Voters fed up with Hard Times.” The MPP victory will likely be greeted as a tailwind for the economy and international miners such as Rio Tinto, which last month finally approved a $5.3 billion extension plan for the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine.
To end my report on the environment of Mongolia I would like to tell a tale of a friend who recently traveled in Mongolia. There are not too many westerners who have driven across Mongolia in a 1940 Chevrolet Suburban with their 80+year old father, but I just happen to know such a person. Keith Young is, in fact, a good friend and in the summer of 2013 Keith and his father entered a car rally that began in Beijing and ended in Paris. Taking advantage of this friendship and with the atlas open before me, I had Keith describe to me where he and his father entered Mongolia and where they exited the country into Siberia. By the way, the entire trip took them over a month to complete with a final cruise down the Champs Elysees. Keith’s description of this incredible voyage has helped me get a real feel for what it was like to camp out in a tent at night in the middle of a verdant steppe with only brilliant stars overhead, or to be freezing cold in the middle of a dust storm, see gers in the distance with their herds of livestock and Bactrian camels, and drive across a country on bumpy goat and camel tracks.
They entered Mongolia on the Chinese border at ERENHOT, where the trans Mongolian railway passes through. Mongolia is famous for impressive dinosaur bones and ERENHOT has an arch of dinosaur bones at the entry to the city. In Erenhot they saw many trucks heading out into areas of mining activity. They also encountered a bad sand storm here.
Next stop was ALTANSHIREE where they camped out in the desert. They traveled on no roads only on open grassland, goat tracks.
Then in to Ulaanbataar, where they head not to the cultural sites of the city but rather to mechanic shops to buy parts for their old Suburban. The capital is very polluted from much automobile and truck traffic and dust blowing in from the countryside. The Mayor of the city sees them off from Sukh Baatar Square.
Next stop is BULGAN, home of the first Mongolian to go in to space.
Then MORON, HORSGOL. Heading northwest out of the capital, they drive to TELMEN LAKE AT 6,000’. This lake and NUUR LAKE are both salt water lakes and are beautiful and isolated in this remote part of the country. They see a dust storm coming and the temperature at night is in the 20s in June.
Next stopping point is KHYARGAS LAKE at CHJARGAS, UVS.
Is there anyone besides me having trouble with spelling and pronunciation?!
Next stop UBSUNUR, Hollow Mountain Basin, which is a protected watershed for Central Asia. This area has about 40,000 archeological sites in an area of about 450 square miles. Some of the salt water lakes are 150’ deep. The rock formations are called KHETSUU KHAD and are covered with native birds.
On to UUREG LAKE, another salt water lake, 92 square miles in the ENDORHEIC BASIN, with no outflow.
Last stop in Mongolia is in TASHANTA, a sleepy border town in the Muslim, Kazak region of the country, this is the capital of OLGII where they host the Golden Eagle Festival. There are many mosques in the city.
As they drive into SIBERIA they find roads with huge potholes and grooved ruts in the asphalt caused by heavy truck traffic. They are surprised and delighted to come upon a beautiful 30 mile stretch of highway, newly paved and smooth as a billiard table that leads right to Putin’s dacha! Ah, Putin!