POLLUTION IN MONGOLIA

WORSENING POLLUTION IN MONGOLIA

William MacNamara wrote in the New York Times, “The concept of a “blue sky country” has become almost a cliché in presentations about Mongolia, the world’s fastest-growing economy last year. The phrase, which evokes the Montana-like landscape of the steppe, paints a picture of sunny investment horizons in this frontier democracy rich in coal, copper and gold. But visitors to this city, the capital of Mongolia, seldom find a blue sky today. It is smoggy, and soot rains down from the hills, as the poorest residents burn cheap brown coal to stay alive through the winter. [Source: William MacNamara, New York Times, December 10, 2012 <|>]

According to the OSCA: In the winter, the air quality in Ulaanbaatar is among the worst in the world. Air pollution levels often reach hazardous levels as a result of emissions from coal stoves, power plants, boilers, and vehicles. The poor air quality may trigger health problems (asthma, allergies, and other upper respiratory illnesses). Though the government is taking measures to reduce the pollution, there has not been significant, overall improvement, as growing urbanization means the influx of residents overwhelms efforts to reduce emissions at the individual household level. Winter visitors should use N95 complaint particle masks if spending extended periods outdoors in Ulaanbaatar. [Source: “Mongolia 2015 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

Coal and Pollution in Mongolia

Mongolia has abundant supplies of coal. It has about 100 billion tons of coal underground. Many power plants are coal-fired and belch out a lot of smoke. Strip mining scars the pristine countryside. The Baganuur strip mine, developed in the 1980s, produced 2 million tons annually by 1985. The Sharin Gol strip mine, developed in the 1960s, had an annual output of 1.1 million tons in the 1980s. Most Ulaanbaatar’s coal now comes from Baganuur.[Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Coal is linked with many environmental problems in Mongolia. The main power plants for Ulaanbaatar are inefficient combined heat and power stations built by the former Soviet Union. One was built in 1965, the other in 1984. There are responsible for much of the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar.

There is also problems created by mining. Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post: “The mining industry is now carving millions of tons of rock out of Mongolian soil each year, and using Mongolia’s sparse water supplies to process the minerals. In many places throughout Mongolia, the water table is dropping, making it difficult to sustain livestock.” [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013]

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: The Mongolians have to use coal because it's much cheaper than oil or gas for them. The boom in coal mining in Mongolia is related to China's booming economy. When China replaces coal with other fuels such as natural gas and oil, the boom will slow down. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015]

Mining and Water Pollution in Mongolia

According to the Goldman Environmental Prize: On the sprawling, sparsely populated steppes of Mongolia, outdated and unregulated mining practices have put waterways across the country in jeopardy. With most of its population living in poverty in rural areas and many working as semi-nomadic herdsman, Mongolia faces a serious challenge: to utilize their resources in international trade and to regulate industry in order to protect the natural environment that supports citizens living in very tough conditions. With an unwavering commitment to address this challenge, Munkhbayar is leading the effort to protect Mongolia’s precious water resources from the dangers of unregulated mining.[Source: Goldman Environmental Prize]

Mongolians living in rural areas rely on the many rivers and tributaries to provide drinking water for themselves and their herds. Today, more than 30 tributaries of the Onggi River (one of the largest rivers in the country) have dried up due to unregulated mining that uses high-pressure water systems to extract minerals. In a country where water is sparse to begin with, the corruption of established water sources has dire consequences.

After the fall of the USSR, when former Soviet allies ushered in a new era of free market development, environmental activitsts became increasingly concerned about the shrinking river, both for the people who rely on the resource and for the protection of lands his family has lived on for centuries. As gold mining greatly expanded, more than 30 companies were allowed to mine along Onggi River tributaries. Indiscriminate, illicit mining and weak law enforcement resulted in the rapid destruction of the environment and natural resources across Mongolia.

Alternative Energy in Mongolia

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: “The Mongolian government...is looking for innovative ways to diversify into renewable energy, despite a wealth of coal reserves. Earlier governments started small-scale renewable energy initiatives like the subsidized sale of solar panels to nomads, with assistance from the World Bank. The project brought solar panels to 100,000 herder families, who move three or four times a year across Mongolia’s grassy steppes and sunburned deserts. [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012 /=/]

Hulan Davaadorj, an investment analyst for Clean Energy, a unit of Newcom Group, told the New York Times, ““We live in a globalized world now, so whatever happens in other countries can affect Mongolia, and what happens here can affect other countries. So to reduce our carbon footprint, we need to use clean energy when we develop our new power sources.” /=/

“Renewable energy will not fix all of Mongolia’s problems. By nature, this type of power cannot provide a constant supply of electricity — the more heat- intensive coal plants must generate that. Wind power can contribute as much as 20 percent of the electricity in the central grid. “Mongolia has tremendous potential for solar and wind, but this is something that has to be carefully approached because of the nature of renewables. They don’t provide the same reliability as more conventional sources of energy,” said Shane Rosenthal, deputy country director for the Asian Development Bank in Ulaanbaatar. /=/

In November 2011, “Mongolia was host to a conference, Renewable Energy in North East Asia, that highlighted a proposed Asian supergrid, an ambitious plan to connect power grids from Japan to India. The host for the conference was President Tsakihi Elbegdorj, named a 2012 Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Program for his eco-friendly policy leadership. Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag has also reshaped his government’s stance on the environment by taking the Ministry of Environment and adding a “Green Development” division that will, in theory, develop renewable and environmentally responsible energy.

Wind Power in Mongolia

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: “Salkhit, M ongolia — On a desolate, wind-raked hilltop not far from the Mongolian capital, white-helmeted workers were busily lifting, tugging and erecting 80-meter poles and fitting them with enormous pinwheel-like turbines in Mongolia’s first foray into wind-generated power. With 31 of these 260-foot, or 79-meter, turbines made by General Electric, the Salkhit, or Windy, Wind Farm will be able to produce 50 megawatts of power when it goes online in early 2013. That is enough to supply Mongolia’s 860-megawatt central grid with approximately 5 percent of its energy needs [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012 /=/]

“Inside a V.I.P. yurt near the turbines, Hulan gave a PowerPoint presentation to a group of visiting businessmen, outlining the details of the $120 million effort. Newcom Group is the company behind the wind farm project. The eco-friendly plant about 45 miles, or 70 kilometers, from the capital, Ulan Bator, will save Mongolia 150,000 tons of coal and reduce carbon dioxide emissions 180,000 tons annually, Ms. Hulan said. “This plant is needed because you cannot have development and growth without energy,’’ Ms. Hulan said. ‘‘The country is developing rapidly, so new energy will be the basis for this growth.” /=/

“As part of the effort to use renewable energy sources, Newcom Group is working with Japan’s Softbank to develop a 300-megawatt wind farm in the Gobi Desert.“They see the potential for generating large-scale power generation based on wind, to export power to China and Korea and eventually to Japan,” said Tumentsogt Tsevegmid, the chief representative of General Electric in Ulaanbaatar. “After Fukushima, the Japanese said they want to shut down their nuclear program, so they need additional power,” he said, referring to the nuclear disaster and the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the tsunami last year. “ Mongolia can help.” For now, the Newcom project is the only wind farm under construction in the country, but the Ministry of Environment and Green Development said that other companies had shown interest in developing wind farms, particularly in the Gobi region. /=/

New Power Plants to Run Mongolia’s Mines

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: “Mongolia is emerging as an important economic and energy power player in the Asia-Pacific region. As it grows, the country will need energy to propel its expanding capital city and its burgeoning copper and coal mines...Oyu Tolgoi, a $6.5 billion mine in the Gobi Desert, will need to import power from China to run its copper concentrator. But after four years, the investment agreement states that Oyu Tolgoi will have to switch to domestic power. [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012 /=/]

“Tavan Tolgoi, one of the biggest coal fields in the world, with 6.4 billion tons of coal reserves, will also need power to operate a coal-washing plant at its site in the Gobi Desert. Then there is the $10 billion industrial park planned for the city of Sainshand. All these projects will require new sources of energy, and the government is considering its options. One likely source is a proposed 450-megawatt power plant, code-named CHP5, planned for Ulaanbaatar. GDF Suez, based in France, is the lead bidder in a consortium to develop the project, which is expected to be in operation by 2015. It would be coal-fired but would use newer, cleaner technology; Newcom, Sojitz of Japan and Posco Energy of Korea are also involved./=/

“According to a statement from GDF Suez, the Mongolian government will buy power from the plant under a 25-year deal. Steam from the plant will be used for city heating in Ulaanbaatar, where winter temperatures plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit). About 340 kilometers east of the capital, Prophecy Coal of Canada is proposing construction of a 600-megawatt plant. Prophecy says the plant would help Mongolia end its energy reliance on Russia and eventually allow the country to export power to China. “First we want to build a plant that will satiate domestic demand for power,” said Oscar Mendoza, general manager for Prophecy Coal in Mongolia. “But our concept is to build a plant that can go from 600 megawatts all the way up to 3,600 megawatts or even 4,800 megawatts.” /=/

Ulaanbaatar Air Pollution

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: Ulaanbaatar was “identified by the World Health Organization as the world’s second-most polluted city, after Ahvaz in southern Iran. According to a 2011 report by the World Bank, the population’s exposure to fine particulate matter in the city was, on average throughout the year, six to seven times as high as the most lenient World Health Organization targets. [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012]

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's booming capital, is choking on smoke...Ulaanbaatar is the world's coldest capital; in January, the average low temperature was 41.3 degrees below zero, with the mercury once sinking to minus 86.8. Winter weather lingers through April, so clouds of smoke choke the skies for months on end. Ulaanbaatar means "red hero" in Mongolian, but the pollution is so bad that cynical locals have taken to calling their city Smoky Hero. "It's really difficult to breathe and the smoke sticks to my clothes," says Tsetsegmaa Tsoggerel, a 23-year-old shop clerk. "Everything smells and I hate it." The capital, which sits in a valley with mountains on the outskirts, was prone to bad air seasonally even before the economy started booming. Spring dust storms are common, whipping particles into the air and contributing to health problems such as eye infections. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015 ><]

"The pollution problem becomes apparent to anyone who lands at the airport in winter. you can see it on approach, it's a very dark brown smog over the city," Courtney Engelke, a representative of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US-funded donor organisation working to clean up Ulaanbaatar's blackened skies, told Reuters. "I have been to ger districts in the height of winter," she added. "I found it close to unbearable. I felt a shortness of breath. Almost a choking sensation." [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: The WHO survey on air quality looked at the density of airborne particles less than 10 micrometers, also called PM10 concentrations. The annual average PM10 concentration in Ahvaz was 372 micrograms per cubic metre while Ulaanbaatar was runner up with 279. Washington DC had just 18. Ulaanbaatar's pollution is seasonal, with relatively low amounts in summer, but critical levels in the depths of winter when the PM10s can reach 2000 micrograms per cubic metre in the worst affected areas.” ==

Measuring Ulaanbaatar Air Pollution

In 2015, U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar began measuring Ulaanbaatar's air quality the same it does in Beijing. Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: Ulaanbaatar has four air-monitoring stations run by the city's air quality department. But the U.S. Embassy is even closer to the central business district and parliament. "Ulaanbaatar is located in sort of a depression, and the embassy within that pocket is in one of the deepest parts of the city," U.S. Ambassador Piper Campbell said. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015 ><]

“Unlike in Beijing, where the monitoring program has been perceived by Chinese leaders as a stick in the eye, the American efforts in Ulaanbaatar have been welcomed by the government and researchers, she said. The typical level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5 in Ulaanbaatar's air is about three times the level recommended by the World Health Organization, said Luvsan Munkh-Erdene, director of the health policy research center at the Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences. On bad days, it can climb to 12 times the WHO-recommended limit. ><

Cause’s of Ulaanbaatar Air Pollution

Coal-fired power plants, motor vehicles (about 180,000 cars) and coal-heated yurts contribute to Ulaanbaatar's air pollution. The city’s power and heat largely comes from the city's three Soviet-era coal-fired power stations.

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: The “pollution is largely attributed to the tens of thousands of families living in slum areas called “ger districts,” where residents burn raw coal in winter to keep warm. Coal-fired power stations, exhaust from vehicles and dust from construction sites also contribute to the airborne particulate matter. [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012]

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: “Coal-fired power plants and the exhaust from the growing number of motor vehicles on Ulaanbaatar's roads are viewed as the chief culprits, as they are from Beijing to New Delhi. But Ulaanbaatar's woes are exacerbated by a uniquely Mongolian factor: the tens of thousands of gers, or yurts, clustered around the city's edges...The air is thick with smoke in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Coal is the chief source of heat in the world's coldest national capital.” [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015]

Gers and Ulaanbaatar Air Pollution

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: :For centuries, Mongolia's nomads have dwelt in these tent-like structures made of felt. But the promise of a better education and jobs has lured hundreds of thousands to the big city. Ulaanbaatar has 1.3 million residents — almost half the country's population — and gers have proliferated as a cheap and familiar form of housing. With no access to the city's central heating grid, though, ger dwellers must burn coal to stay warm. And burn they do. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015]

Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: “Many residents live in gers, drafty felt tents that Mongolian nomads have used for centuries. Tens of thousands of nomads have moved to Ulaanbaatar in recent years in search of work, bringing coal-fired cast iron stoves to keep warm in temperatures that fall to minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) in winter. The resulting soot that envelopes the city — particularly during the winter. [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

“Most of the PM10s are produced in sprawling slum-like "ger districts", where in winter most of the 150,000 families living in these areas burn two or three small bags of raw coal a day. Burning raw coal emits mercury, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter (PM), as well as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. "The poorest of poor burn other things, like garbage and tyres, which creates a toxic brew of its own," said Engelke.” ==

Health Problems Attributed to Ulaanbaatar Pollution

Michael Kohn wrote in the New York Times: “ According to a study produced by the Public Health Institute of Ulaanbaatar, the number of people sickened by respiratory disease increased 45 percent between 2004 and 2008.A 2011 study by Simon Fraser University in British Columbia reported that one in ten deaths in Ulaanbaatar can be attributed to air pollution. [Source: Michael Kohn, New York Times, February 3, 2012 /=/]

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: Tsoggerel “worries about the long-term cost to her health and that of her husky puppy, Hero. "When people sneeze or get rashes, they say they have allergies, but I don't think that's it. I think it's the pollution," she said. Air pollution here is of particular concern to pregnant women and children. Infants and youngsters growing up in ger districts are most at risk, said Munkh-Erdene, who has researched air quality in Ulaanbaatar and its effect on health for four years. Pneumonia is the most common immediate problem, and long-term exposure can contribute to cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Air pollution in Ulaanbaatar causes 130 premature deaths among children and 1,440 among adults each year, according to a 2014 report Munkh-Erdene researched with collaborators from UC Berkeley. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015 ><]

Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: “Atmospheric scientist Christa Hasenkopf, says breathing the city air over the course of 12 months would be equivalent to living in a home with somebody who smoked 60 cigarettes a day. "It's a rough calculation, but by any measure the air quality in winter is deadly," says Hasenkopf. "The particulates are a main source of respiratory disease because they are so small and can reach deep into the respiratory system." [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

Combating Air Pollution in the Ger Suburbs of Ulaanbaatar

Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: “The government has subsidized and distributed more efficient stoves that produce less smoke. Ulaanbaatar leaders want to dismantle the gers and wooden houses. They have long envisioned building affordable apartment complexes, with access to the city's heat and water services. That's still years away, however. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015]

Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US-funded donor organisation working to clean up air pollution in Ulaanbaatar has developed “heat efficient felt coverings that wrap around the ger and a vestibule fitted around the door. The programme also includes tree planting in ger districts, which for the most part are sprawling patches of waste ground. The MCC is putting US $50 million into the project with additional commitments made by the government. [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

“For the government, the long-term solution is to convert the ger areas to more permanent housing, with apartments that can be connected to the central heating grid. But years, perhaps decades, are needed to build the infrastructure required to house a half million people. The government has also proposed banning the use of raw coal in districts close to the city centre, but enforcement of such a ban could be difficult in hard to reach, overcrowded areas. ==

New Stoves Aimed at Improving Ulaanbaatar’s Air Pollution

Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: “Inside a stove showroom deep in the suburbs of this sprawling smoke-filled city, Mam Ivermint, 80, is shopping for a new coal-fired stove — her unlikely contribution to the cause of cleaner air. The cast-iron stove she selects is low tech, but very different from the traditional Mongolian heaters responsible for spewing much of the grit that fills Ulaanbaatar's skies, making it the world's second-most polluted city. It includes features that cut smoke emissions by 80 percent. "I am happy to replace my old stove," said Ivermint, a retired accountant. "This new stove burns much cleaner and is more fuel efficient. It will make our city a cleaner place to live." [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

“The plan to swap old stoves for cleaner models is part of a new effort by the government and donor organisations to reduce air pollution in one of the world's smoggiest cities. The World Health Organisation places Ahvaz in southern Iran in the top, most-polluted spot. When Mam Ivermint installs the new heater, her old family stove will not merely be tossed aside. It will be destroyed to prevent others from using it. The plan to swap old stoves for cleaner models is a part of a joint project by the government and the MCC to sell the stoves at subsidised rates. ==

“The original price of the stoves is 325,000 tugrik ($260), but after a subsidies from the MCC and the government, the cost to the buyer falls to 25,000 tugrik ($20). That compares with US$25 to $40 for a traditional stove. Using a unique air flow pattern, the stove allows coal to burn longer than a traditional stove, requiring one third the amount of coal. Most of the coal's particulates are burnt up inside the stove, eliminating four-fifths of the exhaust that exits through the stove pipe. The stoves have been wildly successful so far, with more than 15,000 units sold in less than three months. The MCC hopes to sell an additional 80,000 during the final two years of the project. ==

“Ivermint, a new crusader in the fight against air pollution, hopes the success of the clean stove project will help end to Ulaanbaatar's Dickensian winters. "I am going to advise my neighbours to buy one as well. Nothing will change if only a few buy it," she said. "When I first came to Ulaanbaatar 18 years ago, the city skies were clear, maybe if everyone uses this new stove it can be like that again." ==

Mongolia, Dumping Ground for Asia’s Nuclear Waste?

Joshua Keating wrote in Foreign Policy, “The U.S. is reportedly in talks with Mongolia about the country setting up an international repository for nuclear waste, reports National Journal. U.S. Energy Department officials and their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, are in the early stages of discussion and there has been no determination yet about whether to proceed with the idea, according to Richard Stratford, who directs the State Department’s Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security Office. [Source: Joshua Keating, Foreign Policy, March 31, 2011 <*>]

“Speaking at the biennial Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Stratford said a spent-fuel depot in the region could be of particular value to Taiwan and South Korea, which use nuclear power but have few options when it comes to disposing of atomic waste. "If Mongolia were to do that, I think that would be a very positive step forward in terms of internationalizing spent-fuel storage," he said during a panel discussion on nuclear cooperation agreements. "My Taiwan and South Korean colleagues have a really difficult time with spent fuel. And if there really was an international storage depot, which I have always supported, then that would help to solve their problem." <*>

“Stratford is Washington’s lead envoy for nuclear trade pacts, which are sometimes called "123 agreements" after the section of the Atomic Energy Act that governs them. The United States provides fresh uranium rods to selected trade partners in Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan. For Mongolia to accept and store U.S.-origin spent fuel from these or other nations would require Washington to first negotiate a nuclear trade agreement with Ulaanbaatar. <*>

“Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had advocated for Russia to take on a similar role a few years ago, but the plan never got off the ground. If Mongolia were to embrace YIMBYism, it would certainly be a welcome development for its Asian neighbors, and a nuclear trade agreement with the U.S. could help kick-start the country’s own power industry. Naturally, questions about proliferation risks are going to come up. And in light of the past month’s events, one can’t help but remember that the region is not exactly immune from earthquakes. “

Tsetsegee Munkhbayar: Asia 2007 Goldman Prize Recipient

In 2007, Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a Mongolian environmental activist, was award the Goldman Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental prizes. Munkhbayar was given the award for successfully working with government and grassroots organizations to shut down destructive mining operations along Mongolia’s scarce waterways. [Source:Goldman Environmental Prize]

According to the Goldman Environmental Prize: Munkhbayar, born into a family of semi-nomadic herdsmen, heads the Onggi River Movement (ORM), a Mongolian grassroots organization that he co-founded in 2001 to protect and restore the Onggi River. His work has led to the formation of the Mongolian Nature Protection Coalition, which brought together 11 Mongolian river movements and has had significant impact on the awareness of this issue both at the grassroots and legislative levels.

As a poor livestock herder, Munkhbayar started attending local council meetings in several villages around his home in the early 90s, representing the voices of herders on issues that affected them: land use, water access and taxation. As a result, in 1996 the local people elected him to chair the local citizens’ council, a rare occurrence for a non-elite Mongolian herdsman. As chairman, he engaged and confronted the provincial and senior government officials on community issues. Munkhbayar became increasingly concerned about the shrinking Onggi River and, with the support of the local people, successfully helped to stop destructive mining operations.

Munkhbayar believes in empowering local citizens to protect and restore the river. He has focused on increasing citizen awareness about the need to maintain natural resources. He holds seminars and workshops to educate herdsmen about their rights as citizens and about environmental issues. Prior to Munkhbayar’s work, few local citizens had been educated about environmental protection, and there were few opportunities for people to participate in shaping government policy. In just a few years, Munkhbayar and ORM have established local boards in all eight counties within the three provinces in the Onggi River Basin; recruited nearly 4,000 supporting members; and carried out information campaigns, press conferences, town hall meetings and a 470-kilometer march along the Onggi river.

Devoting all his time to working with ORM, Munkhbayar eventually convinced the government to increase and enforce mining regulations in the region and to stop damaging mining activities and begin environmental restoration. In May 2006, the Mongolian Parliament passed the Law on Minerals, which regulates mining and protect precious waterways. In addition, 35 of the 37 mining operations working in the Onggi River Basin have ceased destructive operations. Erel Mining Company (the most egregious violator) has been shut down and the Onggi River is flowing higher and farther than it has at any other time in the last two years.

Hanging Out with Tsetsegee Munkhbayar

Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post: “I am on an overnight retreat now, an hour outside UB, visiting the country home of the world’s most famous nomad/eco-defender. Munkhbayar, 46, founded the Onggi River Movement a decade ago. The river running through his central Mongolian village dried up then, thanks to gold mining, and children got liver disease as their parents dug new wells into soil contaminated by cyanide leaching. Munkhbayar persuaded the government to impose mining regulations. He brought the river back — and then National Geographic loved him. In 2008, it named Munkhbayar an “emerging explorer,” celebrating him as “an ordinary herdsman” who believed “the environment has no border lines.” [Source:Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

“I guess I expected the Dalai Lama with a crooked shepherd’s staff. But no, Munkhbayar has grown a bit fatter since his National Geographic days, and a little sententious. In the dim light of the ger, sitting cross-legged and all but whispering to me (Mongolian is a throaty language) before an altar bedecked with two sacred volumes of Genghis Khan’s wisdoms, his words have an orotund air. “The problem with America,” he says, “is late marriage. Americans should have more children.” When I express shock, he addresses me with stern judgement: “You don’t understand, because you are one of those who is lost. You are part of settled society.” |::|

“Munkhbayar’s credo is that all world citizens should live as Mongolia’s remaining nomads do, in collapsible tents, as loyal family units that move nimbly about in tune with the weather, migrating 20 or so miles every season. Never mind that he and I came out here from UB in an SUV piloted by a guy in a Yankees hat, motoring right through the fender-high water of a river. “The ger is the answer to all the questions we have,” Munkhbayar says. “The life here in the ger is a natural phenomenon. We get our water from the river, not from bottles or factories, and a good herder acquires all the knowledge anyone needs. He’s an astronomer; he can tell his location by looking up at the stars. And he is also very good at predicting the weather.” |::|

“Munkhbayar is wearing a glimmery gold shepherd’s shirt, and his ger is pristine, devoid of the usual clutter of stereo equipment and muddy water buckets. It’s a dude ger, really. Munkhbayar brings so many foreigners out here that in one cabinet there’s a couple of dozen pairs of loaner sandals. He’s got a practiced spiel, and now he expresses frustration that very few Mongolians share his new passion for traditional garb. “They are lost,” he says, “just like you.” |::|

“In 2011, Munkhbayar took vengeance against settled society. He shot at a gold mine security guard, landing himself in jail for three weeks. “Mining has exceeded its limits, and we need to use whatever tools we can to stop it,” he tells me. “I think of Chinggis Khan, of Attila the Hun. They achieved great change, and soon there will be another big change in Mongolia.” The end of modern democracy, he means. “Democracy is based on consumerism, which is the thinking of animals,” he says. “What we need is a leader like Chinggis Khan. Chinggis united the tribes. He was a real Mongolian. ...”When I step outside, finally — and then leap across a small stream to stroll up into the snowy hills — I feel free, and happy to be released from Munkhbayar’s tent sermon.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016


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