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Under the Blue Horse's hoof
Zabaikalsky Nature Reserve may disappear due to hydraulic works in neighboring Mongolia.
The implementation of the Mongolian infrastructure program "Blue Horse" ("Huh Sea") jeopardizes one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Russia, the unique ecosystem of the Daurian steppe "Landscapes of Dauria". The Mongolian authorities are building a dam on the Uldza (Ulz-Gol) River, the main water flow that feeds the Torey Lakes located in the Landscapes of Dauria.
The construction of the Uldze dam is part of the Blue Horse infrastructure program. It provides that dams will grow in 33 sections on 12 largest rivers of Mongolia to collect rain, snow and flood water, "as well as to divert water to the Gobi region," where there is little surface water and the mining industry is actively developing. The Blue Horse plan runs from 2021 to 2025.
The original idea was different - in 2017 and 2018. The Mongolian side informed the Russian about plans to transfer water from the Onon River to Uldzu to "solve environmental problems." The implementation of such a project would lead to many negative consequences, including the disruption of natural fluctuations in the water content of both the Uldza River itself and the Torey Lakes. But quite unexpectedly, the plans turned 180 degrees - in July 2020, the construction of not a canal, but an 800-meter dam on the river began. Judging by the images from space, the dam is now more than half ready.
And if the construction is completed, then in a very short time the region of the Torey Lakes will turn into a huge lifeless wasteland.
In 2007-2008, China has already unceremoniously invaded the ecological system of the southeastern Transbaikalia, carrying out a project to transfer water from the Argun River basin to Lake Dalai (Hulun).
“This project had obvious negative consequences for the unique transboundary wetlands in the Middle Argun. ... reduced the river runoff during the low-water season by three to five times and led to the drying up of the most important part of the floodplain and, judging by the first observations, to the loss of the functions of one of the key continental parts of the wetland, "- such an assessment of the Chinese project was given by scientists , employees of the Daursky State Reserve Evgeny Simonov and Vadim Kirilyuk.
The Mongolian project will put an end to the unique ecological system of the Torey Lakes, which remain one of the last ten most important stopping places for waterfowl and near-water birds in this part of the continent on global migration routes. The dam on the Uldza River (Ulz-Gol) will destroy this island of safety for migratory birds.
The Blue Horse program, under which construction on Uldze is under way, seriously threatens two World Heritage Sites, four Ramsar Wetlands, four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and all of Mongolia's natural large river ecosystems (mostly transboundary).
The reasons that prompted the Mongolian authorities to take such a step lie on the surface - water resources are extremely unevenly distributed in the country. 80% are in the north. The South is a vast expanse of the Gobi Desert, one of the driest in the world. But in recent years, these desert areas have experienced a mining boom. Here, not only the traditional Mongolian animal husbandry is developing, but also the mining industry - large deposits of coal, copper, gold and uranium have been discovered. Both pastoralists and industrialists need water.
Today Mongolia is the largest and fastest growing market for raw materials in the world: coal, copper, gold, uranium, rare earth metals and other resources. The total value of the top 10 largest deposits of coal, copper, gold, uranium and rare earth metals in Mongolia is approximately $ 2,75 trillion. The Oyu-Tolgoi (copper, gold), Tavan-Tolgoi (coal) and Dornod (uranium) deposits are located in zone of the Gobi Desert. The reserves of the world's largest Tavan-Tolgoyskoye deposit amount to 7,4 billion tons of coal. Experts of the Rio Tinto corporation estimate the reserves of the Oyu-Tolgoi deposit, located in South Gobi, 80 km from the border with China, at 25 million tons of copper for 50 years of exploitation.
According to the Mongolian authorities, the game is worth the candle, when it comes to the economy and huge profits, the environment can wait.
The very idea of transferring northern waters to the south was born in the days of the Soviet Union. Many probably remember the Soviet project of the century to transfer water from northern rivers to the Caspian Sea. Then reason prevailed and the project did not receive development, but few people know that similar plans existed in Mongolia.
Evgeny Simonov, a researcher at the Daursky Reserve, who is also an environmental expert of the public nature conservation movement and an international coordinator of the Rivers without Borders environmental coalition, says the following:
“The idea of transferring rivers in Mongolia was invented during the Soviet era, by specialists who studied at Soviet water management universities in the 70s and 80s. Then the Chinese actively but unsuccessfully promoted it, sometimes conjugating it with the idea of transferring the Baikal waters. Now it is in demand as an alleged solution to the conflict between the constant increase in water use by transnational mining companies in the Gobi and the needs of the local population in water supply ”.
However, the effect of such a transfer of water will be negligible - the water from the north will be just golden.
“It is technically possible to transfer only very small volumes, which will not completely solve the problem,” Simonov believes. - Research under the auspices of the World Bank showed that the idea is completely unproductive, since, firstly, it costs more than other measures for organizing efficient water use at any of the production facilities, and secondly, strategically it is more profitable for Mongolia to concentrate processing and urban growth in the north, where there is enough water and limited only to the essentials in the south. However, for many Mongolian populist politicians and bureaucrats, the transfer is a gold mine, allowing the sympathy of the residents of Gobi aimags who are waiting for water, because they were deprived of it by alien companies that received the rights to resources through the efforts of the same politicians-officials.
Scientists, the public, residents of the villages close to the Torey Lakes have already appealed to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the Great Khural of Mongolia, the government of the Russian Federation with a request to influence the situation with the construction of the dam on Uldze and the implementation of the Blue Horse program.
Scientists are also extremely worried that in 2020 a multi-year cycle of humidification began: the amount of precipitation falling here increased, the watercourse on the Uldza River increased and, as a result, the filling of Lake Barun-Torey with water began. The last cycle of humidification started with the beginning of the filling of the Torey Lakes in 1983, the maximum of the lake was reached in 1999, that is, in 16 years, and then the dry phase began, which ended two years ago with the complete drying of both lakes. The new content has started right now. Thus, the cycle lasted 36 years this time, the previous one - 29 years.
Photo: Elvira Palamova
“This is an interesting but not unique phenomenon from the point of view of a geographer, hydrologist and climatologist. However, the fluctuations of the Torey Lakes have tremendous consequences for the nature of East Asia, ”writes Vadim Kirilyuk, Honored Ecologist of Russia, who has worked in the Daursky Reserve for almost 30 years.
Evgeny Simonov does not lose optimism and believes that construction will be stopped, but for this Russia must have the political will to do so.
“The creation of threats to a common heritage site hurts the reputation of both Russia and Mongolia, showing that they are unable to jointly manage the common property, which they themselves have included in the list of the highest world values,” says the scientist. "In addition, this is a monstrous precedent, very dangerous in light of the fact that Russia and Mongolia have many common basins and none of them have a common management system."
In Mongolia, this is also understood by many decision-makers, so if Russia insists on stopping construction before conducting joint impact assessments, it will be heeded. But if Russia does not take convincing diplomatic steps by May, then a new construction season will begin and the dam will be completed. Then it will become much more difficult to change anything.