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In Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, Increased Mining Activities Raise Pollution Fears

Rising water use by industry, deformed livestock births, exacerbate traditional pastoralists’ mistrust of the government

In April this year, two concurrent events were reported from the Dornogobi (East Gobi) province in Mongolia. AREVA, a multinational uranium mining company headquartered in France, announced that its Mongolian subsidiary, Kojegobi LLC, had located an estimated 55,000-ton uranium deposit in the Ulaanbadrakh district. Around the same time, local media reported the strange deaths and deformities of a number of young livestock in the district. 

photonamePhoto by Pablo Pecora on Flickr
Mongolia's mining boom has led to fears among the country's traditional pastoralists about the survival of the unique Gobi grasslands ecosystem and a traditional way of life.

Herders living a few miles from the exploration site were saying their lambs, goats, and camels were birthing deformed babies. In some cases the newborns were blind or hairless, in other the deformities were more extreme. There were reports of a lamb with two-heads, another with no lower jaw, and goat kids and baby camels with missing or shriveled limbs, two environmental activists, Baatarkhuyag of Gal Undesten Kholboo or “Protecting the Fire of Mongolia” and Aldarmaa of No Radiation Future, told me when I met with them recently at a café in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. (Mongolians usually use only one name.)

A herder named Norsuren, living about four miles from the mining camp, had lost 22 calves, lambs, and goats. So many “that he stopped counting,” said Aldarmaa.  Overall, about 20 herder families reported spring birth deformities in their livestock, she said.

The previous winter too, large numbers of livestock had died mysteriously. The deaths have led to concerns among the villagers about uranium radiation from mining activities in the region. They suspect the animals had died because the uranium exploration work had contaminated the local environment.

Mongolia has a long history of uranium mining dating back to Russian operations in the 1950s when it was a Soviet satellite state. Though there are no functioning uranium mines in the country currently, its significant uranium deposits continue to attract investors.  AREVA, for instance, has 28 exploration licenses and is currently exploring nearly 5,400 square miles of the province for the valuable radioactive ore. 

Following media reports about the villagers’ radiation and water contamination fears, the Mongolian government ordered the nation’s Nuclear Energy Authority to conduct tests in the region.  To the herders’ disappointment, the tests concluded that uranium radiation wasn’t the problem. Rather it was exposure to naturally occurring selenium and copper in the soil that was killing their animals.

The government asked the herders to “stop creating a sensation,” said Aldarmaa.

Skeptical about the findings, 319 herder families joined with 12 civil society groups and sent a letter to the Mongolian administration in the spring demanding independent testing of the area and the cessation of uranium exploration in the region.

Given that the Gobi region is rich in mineral resources, many water sources here already contain traces or high levels of naturally occurring minerals and heavy metals like arsenic, copper, selenium, and yes, even uranium.

A peer-reviewed study analyzing the Dornogobi’s groundwater, also published in spring, found high levels of naturally occurring uranium and arsenic in the groundwater. The study noted that health officials do not normally test the water for uranium. According to the report: “Average uranium and arsenic concentrations in eight and five of the 14 soums (counties), respectively, exceeded the WHO guidelines.” 

However, Nuclear Energy Authority chief N. Tegshbayar maintains that uranium did not cause the livestock deaths.

This incident is yet another example of the increasing tension between Mongolia’s traditional pastoralists and the country’s government and multinational mining companies that are eager to exploit the country’s rich natural resources.

In the past two decades, massive reserves of uranium and a host of other valuable metals and minerals, including coal, oil and gas, copper, and gold, have been uncovered in this remote nation locked between China and Russia. Much of these resources are buried under the vast Gobi desert, one of the world’s last great wilderness regions where traditional herders still live a nomadic existence. The ensuing resource extraction boom has led to fears among locals and environmentalists about the survival of the unique Gobi grasslands ecosystem and a traditional way of life.

 “There is often a feeling of disempowerment in the general population,” said Lars Hojer, an anthropologist from Copenhagen University researching post socialist transition processes in Mongolia. “People are disillusioned with politicians and do not feel that they have any say, and they see ‘big people,’ politicians and oligarchs, as corrupt people who are only interested in increasing their own wealth.

“Such narratives of suspicion and conspiracy — which are not simply fictions — are difficult to counter, as any ‘proof’ to the opposite — such as the fact they, AREVA, did not pollute the water (if this is the case) — may be seen as yet another instance of insincerity from people in power.”

photoname Photo by Herry Lawford/EIJ archivesMines like this coal mine in Mongolia’s grasslands threaten to poison nearby watersheds,
choke rivers with silt that can asphyxiate fish, and leach toxics into the ground.

Water use is a special concern since mining activities can suck up huge volumes of water — a precious resource in this arid region. (The Gobi desert is already expanding at the rate of about 1,400 square miles a year, eating up fertile grasslands that have sustained herders and their livestock for millennia.)

Dornogobi, just one province in the southern Gobi region, is home to 1.3 million livestock and 60,000 people. According to World Bank estimates, the entire Southern Gobi region, consisting of the Dornogobi, Omnogobi, and Dundgobi provinces, has 3.8 million livestock and 150,000 herders and town residents. The livestock need an estimated 31,600 cubic meters of water a day, while residents need 10,000 cubic meters daily.  Meanwhile, the combined existing mines in the Southern Gobi Region use an estimated 191,230 cubic meters of water a day — almost five times amount of the water that livestock and people use, according to the 2010 World Bank water assessment for the Southern Gobi Region.

A 2009 World Bank map shows almost the entire Dornogobi province to be covered in mining exploration licenses, lending credence to herders’ fears for their livelihood in an already difficult and harsh environment.  Based on World Bank projections, groundwater resources will run out in 10 years unless alternative sources are found. 

Asked if water sources in the area could potentially be impacted by AREVA’s exploration work, a company spokesperson replied via email that government testing had shown selenium, copper and strontium, “three naturally occurring elements in the Mongolian subsurface and neither used nor produced by our activities” had caused the cattle to die. “The analyses are still going on by independent entities regarding the possible presence of natural heavy metal in the water,” the spokesperson said. AREVA maintains they did not use sulfuric acid to determine concentrations of uranium in the soil, as local activists allege. Rather, the exploration drilings were utilizing “mud (bentonite + water), nothing else.”

AREVA said their communications team is working with locals to help them understand the results of the testing.  However, activists like Aldermaa, Baatarkhuyag, and other civil society groups still want “neutral” (independent) testing to be conducted in the region.

Since transitioning to a democratic government and market-based economy, Mongolia has sought to build relationships with other democratic countries, in part to protect itself from the hegemony of its authoritarian neighbors, China and Russia. But it seems that democratic investors do not necessarily garner more trust. As Hojer pointed out, even if independent tests reveal naturally-occurring arsenic, selenium, copper, and uranium in the groundwater, because of the intense competition for resources, the herders’ stance against foreign-operated mines, uranium, copper or otherwise, isn’t going to soften.

Michelle Tolson
Michelle Tolson has an MSc in community development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia. As an international correspondent, she has written from the Asia Pacific and U.S. for publications such as Inter Press Service, The Diplomat, and RH Reality Check.

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