Water management: a major challenge in Mongolia

Article, 07.05.2014

On 4 March 2014, the Water Resources Group, an organisation supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC, published a detailed analytical report on the causes of water scarcity and pollution in Mongolia. A steering committee, drawn from all of the parties concerned, is to be set up and tasked with identifying solutions to the problems that have been raised. A spotlight on the discussions taking place as Switzerland marks ten years of development cooperation in Mongolia.

Workshop in Ulaanbaatar on 17 April 2014 on the analytical report published by the 2030 Water Resources Group.

Mongolia is experiencing an economic boom that is testing the way in which it manages its water resources. Long preoccupied by the problems associated with its transition to democracy, the country is now concerned to realise that its water reserves have become dangerously depleted over the past decade.

The main regions facing serious water problems are the capital Ulaanbaatar, with its population of 1,232,300, and the Gobi desert, where some 200 mining companies have operations. In the capital, over 60% of the population have toilets connected to the sewage system and access to running water. In the depths of winter, they suffer water shortages. In the south, mining activities and climate change in the Gobi desert have resulted in 680 rivers and 760 lakes drying up since 2006. This situation is creating tension between the industrial sector and nomadic herders, and jeopardising the ecological balance and food security in the region.

Agreement with the Mongolian authorities
In view of this situation, the president of Mongolia launched an appeal for aid at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos in 2012. This resulted in the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) becoming involved that same year. The SDC has supported the organisation's work in Mongolia from the outset, and SDC Director-General Martin Dahinden is also a member of the group's Governing Council. Following initial contact, cooperation between the 2030 WRG and the government of Mongolia was officially signed and sealed in the form of a memorandum of understanding in September 2013.

The objective of the 2030 Water Resources Group is to provide the countries that it is invited to partner with an analysis of the water-related issues they face (level of reserves, urgent action points and projections up to 2030), and to convene the parties concerned across both the public and private sectors. The group then supports the countries in question in drawing up a road map for the implementation of a policy ensuring long-term water conservation. On 4 March 2014, the 2030 WRG published a report analysing water management problems in Mongolia. This analysis represents the first stage in its work.

Projections as a basis for discussion
«This analytical report is essential for us,» explains Christoph Jakob, the head of the 2030 Water Resources Group Asia Bureau, who is based in Geneva on secondment from the SDC. «It gives us credible data and future projections which will serve as a basis for discussions to identify solutions. For example, the report states that the mining sector is currently using 12.7% of the country's water, and that it is set to become the biggest consumer of water in the future. It also determines that, in a scenario of strong economic growth, Ulaanbaatar could be running out of water in just seven years' time. Such shortages would jeopardise business sustainability. Our strength is bringing the public and private sectors together to find common solutions.» In April, Christoph Jakob travelled to Ulaanbaatar to organise local workshops at which the findings of the 2030 WRG analytical report were presented to more than 100 interested parties.

Steering committee
To ensure that its work is followed up on the ground, the 2030 WRG is in the process of setting up a 15-strong steering committee. The committee's role will be to propose specific solutions to the Mongolian government on the basis of the analysis contained in the report. Its members will be drawn from a variety of government ministries, from private-sector companies, and from civil society. The latter group includes nomads' associations and environmental conservation organisations.

«Interest in working together has been growing among the country's different stakeholder groups since 2012. That, in itself, is down to the 2030 WRG,» Christoph Jakob observes. «The more visible results of our work will emerge over the next few years, when there are shifts in Mongolian policy on water management. And also, for example, when the mining companies actually apply the rules on water treatment that they will have helped to draft.»

A three-pronged action plan

In its agreement with the Mongolian government, the 2030 Water Resources Group chose to concentrate its activities on three dimensions within the country, to enable Mongolia to gain control of its water management:

1. Identify cost-effective action points by means of hydro-economic analysis. Examples include evaluating the cost-effectiveness of building a pipeline compared with other, less expensive, solutions.

2. Initiate incentive programmes to encourage sustainable water usage. In the future, water treatment should become an integral part of the mining companies' activities. They themselves will benefit from this in turn.

3. Encourage cooperation between the various stakeholders. This implies giving public and private partners alike the tools and expertise that will ensure good water management.

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