Fri, Mar 07, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Mongolia’s water woes threaten economy

The resource-rich country’s battle for water pits its people against mining and agriculture interests

By Oliver Bach  /  The Guardian

Mongolia’s southern and central zones occupy terrain traditionally used by nomadic herdsmen. Diverting already scarce water resources to mining could imperil their livelihoods, analysts say.

Similarly, water scarcity threatens the production of irrigated food crops, especially in Mongolia’s central zone, which provides Ulan Bator with much of its food.

Shifting agricultural production to the country’s east and west regions, where water resources are more plentiful, represents one potential solution, but again, a more obvious and more immediate answer is to promote water efficiency.

Among 2030 Water Resources Group’s early recommendations is an increase in the use of drip and sprinkler irrigation, coupled with improvements in fertilizer balance and pest control.

The most pressing water-related headache facing Mongolia relates to Ulan Bator. With about 1.3 million people, the capital is home to more than two-fifths of the nation’s population. Its infrastructure is already under huge strain, with access to clean water and sanitation facilities among the chief problems. Rural-urban migration is set to exacerbate these further in the coming years.

“In a high-growth scenario, Ulan Bator could potentially run out of water between 2015 and 2021, which is not that far off”, said Alex Mung, head of the World Economic Forum’s Water Initiative and an adviser to 2030 Water Resources Group.

Mung sees a key role for private water companies in terms of knowledge-sharing and the cofinancing of vital water infrastructure. He cites the example of South Africa, where municipal governments are offering private operators financial incentives to reduce leaks. The companies are remunerated according to their ability to stem water losses.

The traditional availability of water means many Mongolian firms have yet to grasp the urgency of the problem, Mung said. Fixing that will require a concerted awareness-raising effort.

Learning to collaborate within the business sector and with government is another imperative, Mung added.

“The more we can do together, the better it will be for everyone and overall for Mongolia,” he said.

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