German researchers launched a pilot project in Mongolia designed to provide residents with a sustainable solution for treating their wastewater, which includes the use of effluent for fuel-wood production.
The Integrated Water Resource Management in Central Asia: Model Region Mongolia (MoMo) project, developed by scientists from Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung, addresses three key water management problems facing residents: a lack of appropriate sanitation; increasing water scarcity; and deforestation caused by the high demand for heating materials.
Conditions in the region — which include lengthy winters with temperatures as low as -40°C plus extended hot and dry periods with sand storms — are significant challenges for the people of Mongolia as well as any infrastructure they might consider building. Any pipes, for example, need to be at least 3.5 and 4.5 meters below ground to prevent freezing. Also, any conventional biological components to a wastewater treatment system need additional, cost-prohibitive assistance such as heating or specialized housing to work properly in the extreme temperatures.
This is further complicated by rampant poverty. About a third of Mongolia’s residents now live in poverty, according to the Rural Poverty Project, which also notes:
Until about 1990 there were virtually no poor people in rural areas. The government and rural collectives made sure that everyone was supplied with basic goods and access to a full range of public services. Poverty has been a direct consequence of the transition to a market economy in the 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Mongolia’s centrally planned economy. Privatization of industry and state farms brought high levels of unemployment. Benefits and assistance dried up. Incomes shrank, inflation devoured purchasing power and people had to bear the cost of health and education services.
The World Bank assessment is more dire. The organization concluded that about 36% or more than 800,000 Mongolians were living in poverty, the result of a shrinking economy. “Industrial production and construction declined 25 percent and 70 percent respectively. Agricultural and livestock output dropped and overall the economy contracted by 20 percent,” stated The World Bank analysis.
The promise of greater economic opportunity — thanks to the explosive growth of the mining industry, which The Economist estimates should account for 95% of the nation’s exports “in a few years” and 33% of its GDP by 2020 (especially of copper ore) — is also causing residents to abandon traditional occupations such as herding, which is now a subsistence occupation for many nomadic residents.
According to the German researchers:
This dynamic change in population pattern is a challenge to infrastructure delivery including appropriate sanitation in the urban and peri-urban areas. Meanwhile the poor status of the existing sanitation systems represents serious risks for environmental and human health. […] This combination of environmental, social and demographic conditions together with old and unreliable infrastructures represents a large challenge for the development of appropriate wastewater treatment technologies.
The German scientists designed a decentralized wastewater treatment plant with colleagues in Mongolia. The facility, which is designed to serve the entire Kharaa Basin, will be tested and operated by the Mongolian University of Science and Technology in Darkhan. It is only one part of a comprehensive, integrated water-resources management project formulated by these researchers.
Willow stands within the floodplain have been logged, and grazing is also eliminating native vegetation. The area has an annual rainfall of about 280 mm, or barely 11 inches, which means this sparse vegetation plays an important ecological role in the area’s water cycle. Pretreated wastewater from the system will be used to irrigate willow trees.
The researchers note that:
There are large amounts of available space in Mongolia which can be used for the treatment of wastewater from suburbs or small settlements. The research program focuses on water quality requirements for sustainable irrigation which considers risks associated with groundwater and soil contamination. The research also considers the extreme climatic conditions such as the storage of the irrigation water and the operation of the plant during winter.
They add that:
Results of the research work in Mongolia will contribute to optimizing the system and identifying its feasibility as an important component of an [integrated water resources management project] at a wider regional scale.
The research is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.
Images by Dr. Manfred von Afferden/Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung, used with permission.