Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar

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Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
Hiroshi Sato*
I. Introduction
To many, Mongolia is a country of steppes and desert. Geographically, the country can be
divided into three main regions: north, central and south. These regions vary greatly in terms of
terrain, climate and other natural elements. The west of northern Mongolia is a wooded region
covered in Siberian taiga forest. Meanwhile, the central region is home to Mongolia’s vast,
characteristic steppes, and southern Mongolia is full of desert steppes.
In 1990, Mongolia abandoned socialism and its one-party rule as the People’s Revolutionary
Party introduced a multiple party system with influence from the Soviet perestroika movement.
Then in 1992, the constitution was amended and the nation of Mongolia was born. Through
these reforms, Mongolia ushered in a new democracy and transitioned from a planned economy
to a market economy.
As the economy flourished following the transition, a number of issues came to the
surface. Of the issues raised, environmental issues are a major one in Mongolia. Currently, the
impacts of domestic economic stimulation and problems such as recent global warming on the
environment can be seen everywhere. Mongolia’s environmental problems are wide-ranging; air
pollution, waste management, water pollution, overcentralization in the capital, energy issues,
water resources, and urban environmental issues are but a few of those plaguing the capital
of Ulaanbaatar. Although it is hard to imagine for a place known as the Steppe Country, these
environmental issues are certainly mounting.
Traffic conditions are one example of an obvious urban environmental problem. Rush hour
congestion in Ulaanbaatar is no different than the morning and evening traffic in developed
countries. The large amounts of exhaust from cars, along with dust, soot and smoke from power
plants, and smoke from burning coal for heat in the winter are all just further spurring on air
pollution. Air pollution is a serious problem not limited to Ulaanbaatar that is spreading to local
Mongolian cities.
I visited the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar in May 2011. The purpose of my visit was
to survey the environmental situation of Ulaanbaatar water. In particular, this was a study of
the Tuul River as a Ulaanbaatar water resource flowing through the city. Mongolia is known
as the Steppe Country for its rich natural environment. Its image may give the impression that
Mongolia is impervious to our global environmental woes; be that as it may, Mongolia is no
exception. It has its own environmental problems amidst the global issues.
Of all the numerous environmental issues in Mongolia, this paper discusses the current state
*Professor, Research Institute of Social System, Chuo Gakuin University
social system review Vol. 3
of water resources in the Ulaanbaatar area, specifically touching on the water situation.
II. Overview of Mongolia’s Water Resources
Sharing borders with Russia and China, Mongolia is a landlocked country in northeast
Asia between 41.4° and 52.1° N latitudes and 87.5° and 119.6° E longitudes. It has a land area
of 1,564,100 km2, which makes it roughly four times the size of Japan1). Wooded regions in the
north house coniferous forests stretching to the Russian borders. Grasslands stretch over the
central region, and the Gobi Desert dominates the south. Almost the entire country is 1,000 m
above sea level at its lowest, with the average elevation exceeding 1,500 m. The highest point
is atop Tavan Bogd in the Altai Mountains near the western border at 4,374 m, and the lowest
point is at 553 m. In addition to the Altai Mountains on the western border, Mongolia has many
other mountain ranges, including the Sayan, Hangai and Hentii Mountains. With its collection of
33 small deserts, the country also has the second most desert area in the world2). The grassland
region is worthy of the title “Steppe Country,” with the steppes comprising 80% of Mongolia’s
land stretching as far as the eye can see.
According to a report from the 2010 Mongolian National Statistical Commission (NSC),
the total Mongolian population was 2,780,800. Of the total, 1,151,500 live in Ulaanbaatar, the
Mongolian capital and largest city. With close to half of the total population calling it home,
Ulaanbaatar is overconcentrated3).
Mongolia’s chief industry is minerals, followed by livestock. There are a total of 32,729,200
livestock between the five major types4) in the still mostly nomadic nation, meaning almost 12
livestock for each person. Breaking livestock down, there were 14,480,400 sheep, 13,883,200
goats, 2,176,000 cattle, 296,600 camels and 1,920,000 horses5). Truly the world’s leading
nomadic nation, nomadism is Mongolia’s identity. Even in the Mongolian Constitution, it
states that “The livestock of the country is national wealth and subject to state protection.” To
Mongolia, the livestock industry truly is the nation’s backbone6).
There are 5,300 rivers, 7,800 springs, 3,600 lakes, and 362 mineral springs in Mongolia7).
Mongolia’s rivers are sparsely distributed; most flow from the mountains of the Siberian taiga
forests in the northwest, leaving the east and south dry regions with deserts.
One of Mongolia’s more representative rivers is the Selenga. The Tuul River flowing
through Ulaanbaatar and Orkhon River flow into the Selenga River, which then flows into Lake
Baikal. From there, it flows into Russia before finally emptying into the Arctic Ocean. The
Kherlen River in the east flows into Hulun Lake in China, called hölön nuur in Mongolian. Of
the rivers originating in Mongolia, 60% flow into either Russia or China, with the remaining
40% either flowing into lakes in the southern Gobi region or running underground to recharge
The main Mongolian water resources are rivers, lakes, marshes and groundwater.
Particularly prevalent are the lakes, which account for 84% of all water resources8). Many of
the country’s lakes are in the northwestern mountains, but there are some distributed widely
in the dry regions. Less than 5% of all lakes have surface areas greater than 5 km2. There are
many smaller lakes, however, with more than 3,500 lakes of at least 0.1 km2 in area9). Between
70–90% of Mongolia’s rainfall evaporates, with the remainder recharging the rivers and
Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
groundwater. Most of the country’s water is concentrated in the lakes, leading Mongolia to be
called a lake-resource country. Annual water resources for Mongolia are estimated 500 km3 from
lakes, 62.9 km3 from glaciers, 34.6 km3 from surface water10) and 10.8 km3 from groundwater.
Of these resources, 63.5% is surface water and the 36.5% is actually groundwater11).
III. The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
In 1992, the Mongolian People’s Republic reemerged as Mongolia, introducing democracy
and a market economy. There has been confusion on many number of issues since the rise of
this market economy, including traditional values and system reforms. A diverse mix of issues
have been highlighted over the years since: confusion of values in a free market, economic
inflation, the wealth gap, collapse of the traditional nomadic system, overgrazing, destruction of
the natural environment, melting permafrost due to global warming, progressive desertification,
water crises, water pollution, and more12). Such problems are also environmental issues in the
capital of Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaanbaatar is positioned in a basin at an elevation of 1,300 m slightly northeast in the
central steppe region of Mongolia. Acting as the cultural, governmental and economic center
of Mongolia, the city is overconcentrated with roughly half the country’s total population. The
urban areas are rather densely populated.
Ulaanbaatar’s annual average temperature is 1.3˚C below freezing and its annual average
precipitation is 281.7 mm. Average temperatures are around 17˚C in July and around −23˚C
in January, although it reportedly often gets colder than that. Spring is the driest season, with
humidity under 30% sometimes persisting for three to four months straight13).
Table 1. Average temperature and the amount of rainfall in Ulaanbaatar
Average temperature (˚C)
Amount of rainfall (mm)
Whole year
Source: Prepared by the author based on “”
social system review Vol. 3
Fig. 1. Ulaanbaatar and the Tuul River (taken from Zaisan huill)
Picture taken May 10, 2011 by: Hiroshi Sato
Mongolia’s climate is that of an arid region and is classed as either a subarctic climate or a
steppe climate. You can see how low precipitation is overall—in comparison, the annual average
for precipitation in Japan is around 1,700 mm, and average precipitation in Ulaanbaatar is less
than a quarter that of Tokyo. The Mongolian climate is truly arid14).
Ulaanbaatar has a number of environmental problems. First, its population has increased to
over one million due to overconcentration. In contrast, the next largest city has roughly 90,000,
and other provincial capitals range from 20,000–30,000. These figures show exactly how
gigantic Ulaanbaatar is in terms of Mongolian cities15).
Further, the urban environment is in a serious state. Urban air pollution is afflicted by things
like increased exhaust from the sudden increase in vehicles, smoke from power plants and
soot from coal combustion for heat. There are a number of other mounting issues, such as the
water shortages and pollution that come with increased population and construction, as well as
problems with waste.
The population influx to Ulaanbaatar is relentless; more and more are building their ger
homes to live in the suburbs. Life in these gers is causing new environmental problems for
the area, including air pollution, water pollution, flood damage and water supply shortages16).
One issue in particular for Ulaanbaatar is their cogeneration system17). There is a large, statemanaged power plant in town. This plant has a system for using its waste heat to send heat and
hot water to the apartment district18), but there is no cogeneration system for the gers. As such,
ger residents burn coal to get their heat in winter. The coal they use, lignite, does not burn very
hot and has resulted in air pollution and dry distillation gas.
Rapid population increases lead to other environmental destruction besides air pollution;
namely, water shortages. These water shortages are ruining the balance of supply and demand for
water resources and effect the entire ecosystem, not just human social activity. The government
Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
is working on plans to build 100,000 apartments as a measure for these ger residents, but if the
apartments fill with residents it will without doubt increase per capita water usage19).
In the past, water consumption in Mongolia was reported at roughly 400 million km3. This
came to a per capita water usage of a mere 8–10 l a day, or between a third and a fourth of the
global average. This was likely the result of water usage limits. Approximately 30% of the water
is supplied via a central water supply system, 25% by water wheel and 36% by well drainage
facilities. The remainder is supplied from small rivers, melted ice and melted water20). Almost
one third of the Mongolian population—about 31%—obtain their water from the main water
resource, groundwater from water service. Another fourth of Mongolians—about 25%—get their
water from mobile tanks loaded with groundwater. Another 36% of Mongolians get groundwater
directly from wells, and 10% or so use rivers21). In 1990, there were 4,879 pit wells in Mongolia,
along with 9,721 mechanical wells in operation. There were also another 20,000 simple wells,
but 40% of these were reportedly not in operation22).
In Ulaanbaatar in 1992, 250,000 tons of water were supplied a day from 133 wells at depths
of 30-70m from four alluvium water sources along the Tuul River, which runs through the
southern part of the city23).
The Tuul River which flows through Ulaanbaatar is one of its water resources. The Tuul
extends for 704 km from its source in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in the Khentii Mountains
with a river basin covering an area of 49.84 km2. It connects with the Orkhon River and flows
into the Selenga River, which then empties into Lake Baikal24). In some parts of the gently
rolling hills of the steppes, the Tuul flows free and uncontrolled throw steppe valleys. In some
areas of Ulaanbaatar, however, concrete levee protection is in place. There have been 150
wells developed along the Tuul River to depths of 30–70 meters below ground level providing
residents 170,000 m3 of groundwater a day25).
The Central Sewage Center provides all the water for Ulaanbaatar. The center has a running
capacity of 177,500 m3/day and design capacity of 230,000 m3/day, but is not used to its full
capacity26). City plans estimate that an additional 240,000 m3/day will be needed to cover water
demands from population increases. Ulaanbaatar is approaching levels where water shortages
could become a daily problem. Water demand is estimated to reach 510,700 m3/day by 203027).
According to Table 2, 55.5% of Ulaanbaatar’s total water supply is for domestic use
with 53% supplied to apartments and 2.5% supplied to private residences and the ger district.
Meanwhile, 41.5% is water for industrial use split between power plants, organizations,
companies and businesses, and 3.7% is for agricultural use, also including livestock. Half of
Ulaanbaatar’s total water supply is for domestic use, followed by industrial use and agricultural
use. Worldwide, two thirds of the water supply is for agricultural use, followed by industrial
use and then domestic use; however, Mongolia’s agricultural water consumption is vastly less
than in farming countries due to differences between farming and the nomadism that thrives in
Clean drinking water supplies are available in 77% of Ulaanbaatar, and sewerage for
sanitation is available in 35% of the city. Sewerage significantly lags behind drinking water
in other regional towns and cities, where 41% have access to drinking water and 10% to
sewerage28). According to the WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water
Supply and Sanitation (JMP), 57% of the world had clean drinking water sources in 2008. By
comparison, the rate for cities in developed countries was approximately 79%29). Looking at
social system review Vol. 3
Table 1. Surface Water
Spring (IV-VI)
Summer (VII-IX)
Autumn (X-XI)
Winter (XII-III)
these figures, Ulaanbaatar rates are close to those for developed countries, but those for regional
towns and cities are quite low. Looking at global water supply averages by area, urban areas
have 79% availability and rural areas have 34% availability. By global regions, the rates are 94%
for developed countries, 84% for Latin America, 83% for East Asia and 16% for West Asia and
sub-Saharan Africa30).
To secure water sources in the future, Mongolia plans to dig 10,000 wells and enhance
irrigation by 2020. Mongolia’s National Development Strategy for 2016–2021 lists a number of
goals. It sets forth an intensive agricultural development plan, calling for wheat production to
quadruple its 2006 rates by 2015, and also setting a target of 1.5 times the current production for
potatoes and vegetables. These production targets will require a stable source of water31).
There are pollution reports for Ulaanbaatar’s main water source, the Tuul River. These
reports show the main factors in pollution as domestic wastewater from Ulaanbaatar and
riverside communities, as well as drainage from gold mining development in the Zaamar district
of Töv Province. Zaamar is reported as the worst polluter in Mongolia32).
An example of the pollution in Mongolia is the mercury used mining in gold mines in the
Khongor district of Darkhan-Uul in northern Mongolia. Reportedly, this mercury is poisoning
the water supply. Mercury disrupts and pollutes the environment. There are concerns that the
great impact mercury has on plant life may have organic ramifications in the future, affecting the
food chain. Some mining locations use sodium cyanide in place of mercury, also raising issues
with miner health disorders together with environmental damage33).
Water in Mongolia is a scarce and highly valued resource, and its pollution is extremely
damaging. Water resources are maintained by balancing supply and demand. Immediate action
needs to be taken to avoid interfering with industrial development in Mongolia’s mainstays of
mining and livestock, as well as other industries.
IV. Concluding Remarks
The Mongolian economy is expected to become even more active in the future, getting
Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
Table 2. Ulaanbaatar Water Supply
Water supplied: 60 million m3
Standard apartments
Private residences
(detached homes) 0.3%
Agricultural / Livestock
Agriculture 1.9%
Livestock 1.8%
Municipal Water
Organizations 3.5%
Companies 3%
Power Plants
Ger district 2.2%
Business 11%
Source: Prepared by the author based on『Туулголынэхийнэко
системийн Yнэцэ
February 11, 2010.
caught up in the wave of a continuously expanding global economy. Mongolia’s rich natural
resources in particular have garnered worldwide attention. The Mongolian economy is expected
to continue expanding to great heights, centered around development of vast natural resources
including coal, oil, gold, copper, fluorite and moybdenum. Accordingly, mining is one of
Mongolia’s most important industries. Livestock is another major industry that is expected to
sustainably develop in the future. As the economy and industry expand, water resources become
more and more essential. Water is the source of all human activity, and society cannot function
on any level without water.
Given this, water resources enable Mongolian economic development, and the domestic
economy is expected to become even more active. Mongolian incomes will rise, making for
more affluent lives and increased consumption and purchasing power. In turn, this will mean
lifestyle changes, with rapid market changes trending for more modern housing, nonessential
grocery items, luxury goods, fashion items and more. These changes will make Mongolians stop
dreaming of affluence and start to actually demand it.
In terms of future outlook, a reclaimed water system is essential to account for water
shortages in light of likely expanding water demands. Overconcentration in the Mongolian
capital of Ulaanbaatar is expected to continue. The population will increase and the economic
industries will expand, and water demand will continue to increase with these expansions. The
supply and demand ratio for water for industrial and domestic use is concerning. Water recycling
is imperative to effectively use Mongolia’s limited water resources to their maximum potential.
Primary raw water from groundwater and rivers should be used for drinking water, domestic
use and industrial use in certain industrial products. Domestic wastewater, industrial effluent
and wastewater should be used as secondary raw water, and reclaimed water should be used for
things such as sewage water, cleaning roads, washing vehicles, agricultural use and planting.
There are some regions of Mongolia with rich water resources, but overall the country is
in an arid region with water deficiencies. Mongolia needs to build an effective usage system
for their limited water resources to balance water supply and demand. The urban environment
in Ulaanbaatar has deteriorated with its economic development. Legal regulations on these
environmental points are a given, but they also need to consider replacing fossil fuels with
clean renewable and natural energy, reclaimed water, and other future environment and urban
construction measures. In particular, drinking water for the many livestock grazing in the
outskirts of Ulaanbaatar will have to be supplied using reclaimed water in the near future.
One of the big keys to attaining sustainable future economic growth in Mongolia will
social system review Vol. 3
be measures for building a water reclamation system and environmentally friendly urban
construction. Ulaanbaatar is expected to continue to be overconcentrated as the population
continues to increase. Water will be indispensable with the population increases and vitalization
of the economy. Water is a limited resource, and its supply and demand must be balanced. A
water reclamation system is essential to help cover these water deficiencies. In the interest of
sustainable future economic growth, Mongolia needs policies which take its environment into
account geographically.
This paper contains partial revisions and corrections from “Mongolia Environment and
Water Resources: Focusing on the Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar” as found in the Bulletin of the
Research Institute of Social Systems, Chuo Gakuin University, Vol. 12, Issue 2.
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“Pre-evaluation Survey Report for The River Basin Management Model Project for the Conservation of
Mongolia: The Water Situation in Ulaanbaatar
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“Pre-study Report for Water Supply Improvement Plan for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia,” Japan International
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