Diverting Water, Diverting the Nation: Water Infrastructure Controversies and the Oyu Tolgoi Copper-Gold Mine in South Gobi Province, Mongolia

A camel in the desert

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine has become a symbol of the promise of mining to revive Mongolia’s struggling economy and to propel the nation into a new era of prosperity. Water resources are vital to the operation of Oyu Tolgoi, which is expected to be in operation for at least thirty years. However, local residents, particularly nomadic herders, have raised concerns about the redirection of water resources for mining. While the company claims that water used for mining has little to no impact on herders’ water resources, herders regularly report decreasing well water levels. With increased mining development throughout the Gobi region, mining infrastructure and regulations effectively privatize communal water resources.

In this paper, I argue that water infrastructure for mining symbolizes a movement of water away from previous visions of the nation and towards neoliberal nation-building that decentralizes the role of the state and prioritizes the water needs of private entities. As herders and other local residents report decreased access to water resources and decision making, the nation’s political geography of water is transforming, as local livelihoods are perceived to be sacrificed for the good of the nation.

This analysis reveals an under-examined intersection between the literature on water and nation-building and the literature on water privatization. The research includes interviews and focus groups conducted with stakeholders, participant observation, and document collection that took place between 2011 and 2012 in Mongolia with follow-up research conducted in 2015.

Introduced by Franck Billé, Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Mongolia Initiative.

Sara Jackson is a geography lecturer at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science. She has a Ph.D. (2015) in Geography from York University. She previously taught English at the National University of Mongolia. Her ongoing research interests include political and cultural geographies of resource extraction in Mongolia and sustainable neighbor projects in Denver. Some of her recent publications can be found in Geoforum, Eurasian Geography and Economics, and Nationalities Papers.