Water management is a tough business, even in regions where water is abundant. Imagine having the responsibility for managing water resources in a mostly-rural nation where rain is unpredictable and temperatures range from up to 30 °C in the summer and -40 °C in the winter. Couple that with a geography that features mountains over 3,000m in height and a desert that is among the driest and harshest on Earth and one can begin to understand the challenge that faces the water managers in Mongolia, a landlocked, central-Asian nation of nearly 3 million people.
Historically, Mongolians drew water from rivers and local wells; much of the population was mobile and migrated as the seasons changed. As the population grew and as more people settled in towns and cities, wells were stressed and already fragile groundwater supplies were not replenished fast enough to keep up with demand. Additionally, as a result of population growth coupled with infrequent rain, many lakes began to dry. In the past few decades, rain has become less frequent and the rain that does come is frequently in the form of heavy storms which contribute to run-off and turbidity in the rivers. Beyond that, the heavy rains tend not to soak into the ground as well as gentle precipitation, so they do not recharge the groundwater as effectively as other forms of precipitation.
Though daunting, Mongolia elected to address these challenges head-on. Beginning in 2006, Mongolia has been working with the Fraunhofer Application Center System Technology AST in Ilmenau, Germany. Working together, the parties have been engaged on a project called “Integrated Water Resources Management for Central Asia: Model Region Mongolia”; the nickname given this project by the center is MoMo. In the MoMo project, the first demonstration of the concept was the city of Darkhan. Darkhan is a city in the north of the country with approximately 100,000 permanent residents; it is situated in the Kharaa River valley and has seen sizable population increases in the past 20 years. Problems with the water infrastructure were clearly evident in Darkhan; water pumps were consuming significant amounts of energy, water pipes were in need of repair and nearly half of the drinking water was lost on its way to the end user as a result of leaks. Many yurts, traditional Mongolian family tents, had their own wells, but the water was often contaminated with bacteria. The situation made Darkhan an ideal test case that could be used to vet ideas and refine concepts that could then be utilized widely across the nation.
Software and planning tools managing water quantity have been in use for many years. The Fraunhofer team took those tools to the next level by incorporating water quality into the model, as well. The result was “HydroDyn”, a water management solution that examines both quantity and quality. A simple, yet practical, example of this is the on-site well; it is common for each cluster of tents to have a well. Often, though, these wells are contaminated with bacteria; by examining the relationship between contaminated wells and latrine placement, an improved guideline was developed that situated latrines beyond the critical distance identified by the software.
At the urban level, the software is taking data from sensitive flow sensors to directly pinpoint leaks to specific sections of pipe, taking significant time out of the leak detection and repair process. This has saved water resulting in improved availability city-wide and even a reduction in pumping costs. More importantly, the improvement in efficiency has reduced the demand on groundwater, allowing the reserves to charge and move in the direction of re-establishing themselves. Additionally, the software identified that sewage treatment was not as effective in the winter months as the summer; the root cause was traced back to the cold climate. The bacteria metabolized waste slower in the cold months than in the warmer months. To address this, the MoMo team is building a test sewage plant which will contain microorganisms in higher concentrations. The team expects the test facility to effectively treat the sewage, even in the cold months when the bacteria are less-active. Assuming success, the goal will be to transfer the findings to other plants in the country.
The MoMo project will run for another three years, at which time the team intends to recommend specific projects for larger scale in Darkhan and additional installations around the country. So far, the results look promising and the city is looking forward to the completion of this stage. Darkhan’s attitude and Mongolia’s direct action can serve as examples to other nations and regions facing water challenges. The MoMo project shows that these problems can be solved with a mix of technology, diligent analysis and committed implementation.