Water Management takes center stage in Mongolia

Written by Wim Douven, on 5 December 2013

The Mongolian economy has entered a new phase of growth thanks in part to its booming mining sector, and whilst this has enabled strong socio-economic change it has also placed enormous pressure on Mongolia's already scare fresh water sources.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaEastern Europe and Central Asia

Mongolia's Water Situation

The current water situation in Mongolia is in urgent need of repair and with serious consequences facing its people; the Mongolian government has decided to step in with a commitment to address its water resource vulnerability.  Deteriorating water quality, increasing water demands and the effects of poor livestock grazing practices has prompted the Mongolian government to develop a water response strategy aimed at developing an integrated water resource management (IWRM) framework for the country as a whole.  


With two-thirds of Mongolia being arid and increasing rates of urbanization taking place, an integrated water approach was profoundly needed to ensure the security and quality of the country's water supply was maintained well into the future. To support this strategy, the Mongolian government has sought the assistance of international experts to help fulfil its vision of an ecologically healthy water system that will not only support its population but also its growing mining and livestock sectors.  


There are significant benefits that will flow from the implementation of the Mongolian IWRM activities. According to the Asian Water Development Outlook, Mongolia’s National Water Security Index stood at 2/5 on a scale of 1 to 5 in 2010. With all the proposed activities being implemented by 2021, Mongolia's water security index is estimated to increase by 30 per cent placing it at 2.6/5 on the index and positioning its water security levels equal to countries such as South Korea. These improvements enhance Mongolia's capability to grow its economy while offering easy access to clean water for its population.


The importance that Mongolia places on effective water management is intrinsically linked to achieving its growth ambition, which is aimed at improving the livelihoods of its people. This commitment is echoed by the most senior leaders within Mongolia who view integrated water management as an essential element to its success. This focus was endorsed by President Elbegdorj of Mongolia who publically stated that "managing our future water needs is key to sustaining Mongolia's economic growth".  At the same time the Chairman of the World Economic Forum from the Water Resources Group acknowledged Mongolia for its proactive approach in the field of Integrated Water Management, with Peter Brabeck- Lethmathe specifically congratulating the steps taken by President Elbegdorj on his foresight and leadership to recognize the importance of water in harnessing Mongolia's economic growth.

Strengthening Mongolia's IWM Practices

The recent assistance of UNESCO- IHE along with other key parties has established a pathway for the Mongolian government to be proactive with its own IWRM strategy.  One of the primary aims of the project was to strengthen the water sector by building capacity through the delivery of a number of key objectives that include introducing IWRM principles, strengthening the capacity of the water sector and the water authorities and developing IWRM plans for two of Mongolia's major water networks, the Tuul and Orkhan river basins. 

Educational Capacity Building

This initial part of the project involved significant investment from UNESCO- IHE as a key partner.  This required assisting the Mongolian water authority and line agencies to undertake a number of initiatives and activities.  The overall objective of the initial capacity building project was to develop strong training programs aimed at strengthening the local water sector in resolving its technical challenges. 


As part of this, IWRM education and training was offered to three Mongolian universities - National University of Mongolia (NUM), Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST) and Mongolian State University of Agriculture (MSAU) with the aim of developing a joint Masters of Science (MSc) program that focuses entirely on IWRM. The delivery of water education in local universities is enabling a highly valuable knowledge transfer to take place. Deltares project leader, Eelco Van Beek expressed that "it has been great to be part of a project that has enabled educational strengthening and capacity building to take place at a grass-roots level." Wim Douven, Project Manager from IHE Delft echoed this sentiment stating that "the outcomes of the project will no doubt have a significant impact on Mongolia's ability to manage it future water challenges."   


To maintain the momentum of ongoing learning and knowledge sharing, UNESCO- IHE will continue to focus on strengthening the educational capacity building component through the offering of places for students to study IWRM at its water institute, local on the job training in Mongolia and PhD fellowships places for Mongolian students.     

IWRM application to River Basins

Whilst IHE Delft main contribution lies in the field of capacity building through institutional and educational programs, there are also a number of large scale infrastructure developments programs underway to better position Mongolia to deal with its water related challenges. These include the development of an IWRM plan, specially tailored to the Mongolian conditions, strengthening the water authority's capability to implement changes, and the development of a pilot plan for the Tuul and Orkan river basins. The initiatives are no doubt critical to reinforce its water management capabilities.  


The Mongolian IWRM plan is specifically designed for the local conditions taking into consideration the key challenges facing the country and finding solutions to better support its future water needs. All the while improving the water conditions in urban and rural areas, providing reliable supply for the mining sector and seeking to develop its hydro power capacity.


These priority areas underpin the goal of a water-secure Mongolia, which is widely seen as crucial for Mongolia to realise its own socio-economic development potential. A key part of supporting this work is through the activities taking place in both the Tuul and Orkan river basins. 

Tuul and Orkan River Basins

The Tuul river basin has the country's highest water demand reflecting its key significance. The river constitutes 3.2 per cent of Mongolian territory and almost solely supplies Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar - about 40 per cent of the population while also supporting 60 per cent of national GDP. Considering the national importance of the Tuul river, a number of IWRM activities are aimed at addressing the negative threat of climate change and human activity. These include actions that improve the water supply capacity, promoting wise water use, education about farming and sanitation practices around the river and introduction of technologies, systems and practices to improve water quality and protect human health. 


Similarly the Orkan river is also of key importance to Mongolia, but unfortunately the river has been negatively affected from its natural state due to a number of human induced factors. Approximately 46 per cent is affected by desertification, 23 per cent by over grazing, 3.1 per cent by unused fallow crop land and 11.6 per cent is covered by mining licenses. This represents a major challenge for policy makers to find a solution to improve the quality and productivity of the river basin.  


As Mongolia continues to transition its society from one heavily reliant on agrarian subsistence to a greater focus on mining, mineral resource exports as well as higher rates of urbanization, its demand on fresh water sources will naturally increase.  As such the river basin projects now underway are bound to make a positive difference for Mongolia and its population.  


Whilst much has been achieved, the sheer scale of the projects does mean that it will take time to fully realise all the positive outcomes.  A strong education and capacity building framework has set the platform for Mongolia to forge ahead with an IWRM plan, which is scheduled to be fully complete by 2021. 


With the outcomes of these projects slowly reaching the population, the signs of a water- secure Mongolia are gradually becoming visible; something that is set to improve the living standards and productivity of an emerging Mongolia.



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