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The view of Ulannbaatar city from The Zaisan Memorial.

     From July 23 to 27, 2017, I went to Mongolia to visit one of our grant recipients, the Mongolian Sustainable Development Bridge (MSDB), whose research focuses on assessing "public awareness of Mongolia's mining sector's water management and radiation impact." The organization is carrying out social and environmental assessments around selected mining areas on its own, independently of any government or developer interference. They are also aiming at establishing Mongolia's first citizen science group as part of this research project.
     It took four and a half hours to fly from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. After entering mainland China, crossing a desert stretch followed by prairies, I eventually spotted the sparse Gers typical of Mongolian sceneries (traditional Mongolian mobile houses made from timber and wool), until suddenly modern buildings erupted from the horizon, and we arrived at the capital city.
     My hosts explained that June and July are the best months to visit Ulaanbaatar, since the climate is pleasant and many city dwellers leave the city for the countryside to spend their summer vacation. As a result, we encountered few people and little traffic downtown.

Ms. Ulziibileg (the leftmost ) and her co-workers at MSDB office

     The day following my arrival, I visited the MSDB office in the heart of Ulaanbaatar's business district, just a few minutes' walk from the Chinggis Khaan square. Three women welcomed me in the office. They said they were not environmental experts; however, they had studied abroad and/or worked at a multinational company. I realized they belonged to the global elite and that they were by far competent enough to conduct the required research. They also possessed a strong network, and this convinced me I was facing a strategic team. Most important, I could feel their passionate dedication to conserve the environment for future generations, a mission they had desired to pursue since childhood.

Walking around Ulaanbaatar

     After our interview that afternoon, my hosts kindly offered to take me to a nearby hill where we could admire a panoramic view of the city. From there, the dynamism of the booming capital was obvious: as far as the eye could see, I could spot commercial and apartment buildings under construction and active thermal power stations, a scenery that certainly symbolized perfectly the current state of Mongolia. And most impressive, a section of the city populated by Gers.
     In Mongolia, around 3 million people live in an area approximately 4 times as wide as Japan, making it the country with the lowest population density in the world. After the democratization of the 90s, Mongolians' lifestyle changed drastically and a large number of domestic animals died of Zodo (cold wave) due to the recent extreme weather, which led the nomadic herders to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle and flow to the city. Recent statistics estimate that about a half of Mongolia's total population live in Ulaanbaatar now.
     In addition, approximately 60% of the city's population live in the Ger district that hosts immigrants and lower-income residents.
     Since the Ger district is isolated from the infrastructure system controlled by the government, residents must burn lots of coal and wood in individual stoves during Mongolia's harsh winter, which is one of the main factors for severe air pollution in the city. Aside from the damage caused by rapid urbanization, Mongolia faces a number of environmental challenges such as desertification and frequent forest fires caused by dry weather as a result of climate change, with the latter declared a national emergency.

Mongolian mineral development and related environmental issues

Fig.1:Mongolian strategically important deposits

     Mongolian vegetation can be divided in 3 broad zones from north to south, from the coniferous forest zone in the northern part of the country near Russia, to the prairie zone in the central area renowned over the world as the typical Mongolian scenery, to the desert zone of the Gobi Desert that reaches the border with China.
     Since 80% of the country is covered with natural grassland, Mongolia has traditionally been an agricultural society, since the socialist era. In the 90s, after the democratization of the political system and the shift to a market economy, the government has been actively attracting foreign investment and focusing on natural resources exploration and development. The mining industry is now the driving force behind Mongolia's growth. Official records list approximately 80 kinds of minerals and about 6,000 deposits of mineral products such as coal, fluorite, copper, molybdenum, gold, and uranium. Among them, the most crucial deposits for national security, the economy and social development are labeled as "strategically important deposits." (Fig.1)
     To exploit these deposits, the improvement of infrastructure networks providing energy and transportation is key, hence major infrastructure development projects are being planned concurrently. The world's largest deposits such as Oyu Tolgoi are concentrated in the desert area where water is scarce. Currently, a huge project to build a dam on the Orkhon River, which flows in the northern part of Mongolia all the way to the Russian Lake Baikal, is on foot. This would allow groundwater to reach the Gobi Desert, some 740 kilometers away, affecting not only the nearby ecosystem but intensifying desertification. MSDB and a group of other NGOs have hence opposed the project on the ground that it would accelerate the adverse effects of climate change.
     MSDB has conducted social and environmental assessments for the mining and related industrial activities at four coal mines and two planned hydroelectric power stations in the first half of 2017. In the second half, they will hold advocacy meetings, inviting a wide range of stakeholders that includes affected local residents, the local government, corporations, and the local community at two coal mines and three uranium mines, which they will interview as well.
     According to MSDB, project information to residents is insufficient and often lacks accurate data. Projects have been going forward without the proper environmental assessments or a formal disclosure of such information, typically about the impact on human and animal health. Here in Mongolia, human rights violations related to economic development projects hardly make news compared to other Asian countries. In my opinion, this can be explained by the vastness of the country, where any forced displacement remains a small-scale phenomenon and not very visible. This probably makes project development easier. MSDB therefore recognizes their crucial role in representing affected residents.
     On the second day of my trip, I visited the Baganuur coal mine around 150 km away from Ulaanbaatar, a 2- to 3-hour car ride. I had asked whether I could visit one of the mines under investigation by the MSDB before my visit, but they are too far and difficult to access. So the coal mine we visited was not the location of one of their most pressing projects. But it was still a good case study. The Baganuur coal mine is a strategic deposit site, with an estimated 700 million tons of mineral and a production of 3-4 million tons annually.
     Long before entering the city of Baganuur, we had noticed a huge unnaturally-shaped hill parallel to the road, whose size and scale was astonishing. My hosts had explained that the coal produced there is sent to coal-fired stations in Ulaanbaatar and near the city. When I reached the entrance of the mining site, I saw a railroad extending from the coal mine. I could easily imagine that the coal produced there was freighted by train. Compared to the scale of the huge mining site, it felt strange that the town itself was so small. The main street stretched for only about a few hundred meters; it was even difficult to find a place to eat in this sedate town.
     On the way back to Ulaanbaatar, we passed the planned site of the fifth Ulaanbaatar heat electric supply plant (CHP5) for which, as my hosts explained, a consortium formed by a Japanese company and other international companies including a French one and a Korean one obtained a first refusal right for conducting the project. MSDB has questioned the project on the basis that it will worsen air pollution, and Japanese NGOs are also criticizing it as part of their "NO coal, NO JBIC investment to coal businesses!" campaign. Indeed, this plan goes against the Mongolian national energy policy to promote renewable energy, and its accompanying resettlement plan has been deemed improper.*1

     *1 The fact scheet on the fifth Ulaanbaatar heat electric supply plant (CHP5)http://sekitan.jp/jbic/2016/09/20/1755

The Baganuur coal mine and the diggings

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar

Spreading the concept of "Citizen Science" throughout Mongolian society

     One of the two pillars of this year's MSDB's projects, Citizen Science is a program whereby citizen themselves perform social and environmental assessments, independently from the government and corporations, and release the data publicly. Through providing citizens with information and raising public awareness, the program empowers people to require developers to revise or even stop the project investigated and/or negotiate with decision-makers. MSDB is currently establishing a reliable and independent website.
     The "citizen science" they define is a series of activities that make the public have power as an interested party in solving society's most pressing issues brought about by modern science, technology and human activities. This, I believe, can be an effective tool to empower citizens to raise their voice. MSDB is eager to establish the first Mongolian citizen science group and spread the concept of "citizen science" through this subsidized project.


     Mongolia attracts many people for its magnificent nature, and flocks of tourists have been drawn to the country, including Japanese. On the other hand, Mongolia's transformation into a country that relies heavily on natural resources has been dramatic. Some have said that Mongolia is going to be "the second Saudi Arabia" or that its "nomadic herders will swap their camels for private jets in 20 years."
     Japan has very strong economic ties in terms of direct investment and exports into the country, following China, Russia and Korea in importance, and our government treats the steady supply of metallic mineral resources including rare metals as a diplomatic priority.
     Now that the word "sustainability" has entered our vocabulary and that its use has become commonplace and natural, such as in "the sustainable and steady supply of resources" or "the sustainable development of mineral resources," we, as general citizens, have an important role to play in watching and evaluating policies to ascertain that they are truly "sustainable."
     Mongolia just held its presidential election in July 2017. It seems that many citizens were hoping for a new president who would break away from the current trade structure whereby around 90% of Mongolian resources are exported to China, and who would invest in promoting local businesses.
     In addition, the landscapes of Dauria were registered as a UNESCO world natural heritage in 2017 thanks to a joint application by Russia and Mongolia, and these valuable natural environments are located near the area where resource exploitation projects are being developed. This registration could be the spearhead advancing MSDB's activities, and we would like to give them our full support.

     Last but not least, let me copy here a message from them. "Although we are a young group, the Takagi fund chose our project with high expectations and trust. We warmly thank the Takagi Fund and its supporters in Japan. "

Mogolian ger with solar panel.

Horses seen while driving