By the time I visited Mongolia in 2010, two things were already evident. The first was the rapacious urbanisation of Ulaanbaatar, a city of more than a million people in a country of three million, where tan panel-flats built from Soviet funds in the 1970s are now juxtaposed with the ‘ger districts’ – improvised yurt settlements sprawling up the hillsides – with all of it under the pall of the world’s second worst air pollution.
The second is the presence of Australians. Not only is it, as The Australian notes, by no means uncommon to see Australian expats as they congregate in the downtown Irish Pubs, there are today more than 45 Australian businesses operating in Mongolia and a dedicated Mongolian Australia Scholarships Program that has educated some of Mongolia’s urban elite. Indeed, last year Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop announced that Australia’s newest embassy would be in Ulaanbaatar.
The reason for both these phenomena is broadly the same: mining. Accounting for 81 per cent of the country’s export earnings and the fastest increase in GDP of 2011, when the rest of the global economy was in meltdown, Mongolia has unrivalled deposits of everything from coal, tungsten, copper, gold, and uranium through to tin, fluorspar, silver, and molybdenum that have given rise to new aspirations for development. “To pay for these dreams,” The Economist remarked, “Mongolia is being dug up and sold to China.”
Yet, to some nomadic herders – a group that still accounts for a third of Mongolia’s population – this quip speaks to a darker reality. “You can see the black holes all over the countryside now where they have just left the mines open,” the nomad Tsolmon Khurekbaatar told Philipa Stewart from Al Jazeera in 2014. Since before the time of Genghis Khan, Mongolia’s nomadic herders have grazed the steppes with their livestock; an industry that continues to be both a source of food staples and Mongolia’s most popular non-mineral export: cashmere. However, with the rise of mining, trees have died, wells gone dry, pastures turned to desert, groundwater all but dried up. People have stopped eating parts of livestock from traditional dishes due to the astounding quantities of dust now found in the animal’s repository and digestive systems.
One coal mine, owned by the Chinese company Shenhua Group – a company which also plans to build a $1.2 billion coal mine in on prime agricultural land in the Liverpool Plains in NSW – was responsible for tapping up 50 million tonnes of groundwater from aquifers only to then illegally dump toxic wastewater back into waterways. This is by no means an isolated incident – according to some studies, 70 per cent of Mongolia’s grasslands are now degraded.
These factors have combined with extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change – a drought from 2000 to 2010 and more extreme winter events known as dzuds – to take an extraordinary toll on livestock numbers, with the World Bank reporting that a single snowstorm in 2010 killed more than 8.8 million livestock. As experts from United Nations Environment Program cautioned, this may be “the end of the Mongolian traditional way of animal husbandry as we know it, that at one time was the very core of the entire nomadic civilisation.” Those who can no longer make a living from herding up their yurts and throng into Ulaanbaatar, burning coal and garbage in the ger districts to keep warm in winters that drop to -40 degrees Celsius.
Mongolia’s coal production is expected to rise by 240 million tonnes by 2040. However, it does not only have the world’s second largest coal deposit, currently being mined at Tavan Tolgoi; it is also home to the Rio Tinto’s $6.6 billion copper mine, Oyu Tolgoi. This monster project accounts for many of the Australians in the country. That said, not all Australians in Mongolia are involved in mining. One, Benj Binks, who I met in New York in 2013, made a documentary, Mongolian Bling. It focuses on one way in which young Mongolians are dealing with the grim urban realities of Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts – namely, through music that speaks to the lived experience of a mining boom from the perspective of Mongolia's poorest inhabitants.
Louis Klee is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Al Jazeera English (Flickr: Creative Commons)