It was cold. Very cold.
As she shivered her way through a sprawling outdoor market, Eloise Kendy — a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy — looked longingly at boots hawked by a local shoe vendor. These weren’t just any boots. They were Mongolian riding boots: the perfect balance between sleek and tough, the kind of boots that last a lifetime. And they would be useful for keeping the Mongolian winter’s biting, -10° F weather at bay.
Kendy was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, taking a brief tourism break from a weeklong work trip to examine the possibilities for conserving the country’s freshwater resources. Despite the intense cold, the ground around the market was bone-dry.
She was painfully aware that Mongolia’s water supply is increasingly unstable, and that pure freshwater is becoming harder to find on the country’s famed steppes. Her trip revealed crucial tactics that could help preserve freshwater for people and wildlife — but it also underscored the importance of acting now.
“Mongolia is the only place where Central Asian freshwater ecosystems remain reasonably intact,” says Kendy, the director of the freshwater team’s environmental flows program. “Freshwater scientists come from all across Central Asia to Mongolia’s lakes and rivers to understand what their own countries have lost to pollution and over-extraction. My trip there showed me there’s still time to save the region’s last remaining healthy freshwater resources.”
The sheepskin boots that Kendy eventually purchased are direct descendants of those worn by traditional Mongolian nomads, who have roamed the steppes on horseback for centuries. That tradition lives on today: while 40 percent of Mongolians now live in cities, 40 percent of the country’s population still live as nomadic herders.
That lifestyle isn’t easy, and its difficulty is compounded by Mongolia’s overwhelming aridity. The Gobi Desert and the steppes — two very dry and evaporation-friendly ecosystems — combine to account for three-quarters of Mongolia’s surface area. Yet the country also boasts a number of enormous freshwater assets, like Lake Hovsgol — which contains 75 percent of Mongolia’s freshwater and is Asia’s second biggest freshwater lake by volume — and part of the Amur, the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern Hemisphere.
But that could change. Freshwater ecosystems the world over are facing increased strain — they’ve lost four to five times more species and habitat than terrestrial and marine ecosystems — and Kendy discovered that the threats in Mongolia were particularly grave.
The Mongolian government has issued thousands of licenses to mining projects, which — if not guided sustainably — have the potential to disrupt drainage patterns, deplete water supplies and create pollution problems that can persist for centuries.
Those developmental dangers are compounded by other threats. Climate change has dried up hundreds of lakes, springs and rivers; inadequate access to wastewater treatment means nomadic communities are often stuck with polluted water sources; and a covert industry of “ninja” or “artisanal” miners — numbering, by some estimates, nearly 100,000 — is spoiling streams and alluvial flats throughout the country.
Most worrying is the fact that freshwater scarcity could change the way Mongolians lead their lives. “Nomads flock to the lakes and rivers that can sustain them and their herds,” says Gala Davaa, the Conservancy’s director of conservation in Mongolia. “This concentrated grazing activity strips grasslands bare, jeopardizing the very ecosystems that make the nomadic lifestyle possible in the first place.”
Despite these growing pressures, there are reasons to be hopeful. In recent years, the Mongolian government has passed new water protection acts, and ongoing tweaks to that law are giving the state enhanced water management powers. Recently, the Mongolian state revoked 250 mining licenses to protect sensitive headwaters.
Kendy’s trip, which put her in touch with a wide range of scholars and government officials, also led to the identification of a number of new approaches that could help conserve Mongolia’s freshwater. New conservation planning performed by the Conservancy could help Mongolian decision-makers better preserve natural patterns of water levels and flows, and new water funds could create sustainable financing for projects that preserve freshwater.
These ideas could intersect with the Conservancy’s ongoing Development by Design projects, which are committed to making licensed development projects as sustainable as possible.
“Central Asia is the world's poster child for freshwater ecosystem collapse,” Kendy says. Mongolia’s freshwater resources are still in good condition, but — like a shivering freshwater scientist in need of a new pair of boots — they require urgent protection from adverse conditions.
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