Mongolia Gold Rush Destroying Rivers, Nomadic Lives

Stefan Lovgren, along the Onggi River, Mongolia
for National Geographic News
October 17, 2008

A mining boom in Mongolia is threatening to devastate the country's rivers and is forcing nomadic herders to abandon their land and traditional way of life, local activists warn.

As mining companies scramble to extract Mongolia's vast deposits of gold and other minerals, government regulations—including laws stipulating that mining not be done next to rivers—are being violated or even ignored, environmentalists claim.

(See more photos.)

Extraction methods, such as dredging, river diversion, and the use of high-pressure water cannons to dismantle hillsides, have damaged rural landscapes along rivers such as the Onggi, which supports 60,000 nomadic herders and one million head of livestock.

Rivers now run dry in some areas, making it more difficult to find water for thirsty animals, according to nomadic herders. They say using the alternative water source—groundwater potentially contaminated by mercury and other mining pollution—is alarming as well.

"Our way of life is threatened," said Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a Mongolian nomadic herder and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

From Herding to Fighting

In Munkhbayar, herders have one of their own to lead the way in the fight for clean, accessible water.

As a young nomad Munkhbayar used to herd yaks along the banks of the fertile Onggi River. During the harsh winters he skated down its frozen waters, often chewing pieces of aaruul (curdled sheep's milk).

In an effort to save his livelihood and heritage, Munkhbayar started the Onggi River Movement, which now has 1,600 members. The group spearheaded a large grassroots movement that includes several river-based organizations.

Together they have protested at mining sites and lobbied government officials to push for stronger enforcement of mining laws. Their efforts have yielded successes, according to Munkhbayar. A few years ago, pressure from his group led to the temporary shut down of many offending mining companies operating along the Onggi River, he said.

The Onggi River Movement has also pushed for mining companies to conduct environmental conservation work, including restoring soils and vegetation to sites that they have mined.

Continued on Next Page >>


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