I’ve read a number of recent articles about the effect of mining in Mongolia as foreign companies, such as Australia’s Rio Tinto, race to exploit the country’s rich natural resources. There are numerous claims that the Tavan Tolgoi (coal) mine and the recent Oyu Tolgoi (copper and gold) mine, located far from civilization in the Gobi desert, will threaten the livelihoods of traditional Mongolian herders. It is prophesized, by media journals, that these mines could lead to a strain in water supplies in the area, causing “desertification” and the “decreasing quality of vegetation”.
Oyu Tolgoi Mine, Mongolia
I hate to point out the obvious, but does it strike you as slightly ridiculous that these mines are causing desertification in a desert? And what vegetation, may I ask, grows in a desert? The last time I was in the Gobi, which was recently, I didn’t stumble over any fields of wheat or rainforests. I stumbled over a few boulders and spotted a camel, but that’s all there was in the “desertificated” desert. That’s if you don’t count the monolithic structures of the Tavan Tolgoi (TT) mine and the construction work and thousands of workers at Oyu Tolgoi which is an impressive sight to behold.
From what I’m led to believe, there really aren’t that many herders in the region of the mines. The Gobi is vast, and very sparse. The handful of herders that may reside in the region isn’t of huge significance, especially when you compare it to oil & gas ventures in other parts of the world that border on civilisation. The traditional Mongolian herder is by nature nomadic, so in the event of any water shortage in the area it’s likely they’ll stroll off to greener pastures. That’s if such a water shortage eventuates, and as yet I haven’t seen any reason why it would. It’s of equal possibility that the mining infrastructure could lead to a greater supply of water in the region.
So why are all these media moguls reporting of such risk? Should these claims be brushed under the carpet and ignored? I wouldn’t like to give a definitive answer on that as the risks may well be genuine to local herders and the immediate environment. I would, however, like to point out an environmental risk of far more significance –the levels of pollution in the capital city Ulaanbaatar.
Anyone visiting Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator, or ‘UB’ for short) in the winter months will be immediately confronted with the pollution which is rife and unavoidable. UB is the second most polluted city in the world, and in the winter months I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first. To walk outside each morning it’s not the temperatures of up to -50 degrees Celsius that get to you, it’s the thick taste of oil and coal residue that hits the back of your throat. This is the product of a city struggling to keep warm. Over 50% of the population of Mongolia now live in the capital, and most retain a traditional lifestyle by living in a tent dwelling known as a ‘Ger’, heated by coal. Even the more modern buildings, offices, and hotels use oil and coal for heating despite the government now provided a hot water-based system. Add to this the fumes from the constantly congested traffic which struggles to get from place to place amidst deadlock and a cacophony of car horns. The city is shrouded in smog, and it defines the city.
Consider the mines – a force that can alter a country completely. UB of today is vastly different to UB of only three years ago. It’s far more congested and far more polluted. UB, by definition, has boomed beyond its belt. Mining has caused this boom, and this is only the beginning. The city has rapidly developed to cater for a mass of foreigners and country folk, with better offices, cafes, restaurants, hotels, shops, entertainment, and even a ski resort. Mining has brought wealth into the city, and the wealth attracts even more people. More work, more business, more money, more people, more pollution! It’s all happening at an alarming rate and will continue to do so. The city is focused on providing luxuries that bring in western money, when what they should be doing is reducing the pollution. Mining provides the money to improve such infrastructure, but will the Mongolian government choose to act on it before it’s too late?
So, forget about the handful of herders who may or may not be affected by the mining, but concentrate on the pollution that could potentially affect the long term health of millions in the capital city. It’s a serious issue, and it needs to be dealt with – fast.