Mongolia Strikes a Balance between Development and Environmental Protection

March 16, 2012

  • As Mongolia is becoming the world’s fastest-growing economy, local and international efforts are also ramped up to ensure its environment won’t pay a heavy price.
  • The Bank and the Mongolian Government administered a 7-year trust fund by the Dutch Government to strengthen environmental management in Mongolia.
  • While this trust fund-supported program has just come to an end, efforts to fully develop a “green economy” in the country will continue.

G. Ulziibaya is a senior hydrologist at Oyu Tolgoi, a copper-and-gold mine that is expected to account for one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by 2020. Part of his work is to ensure that drilling for water at the mining sites goes deeper than 300 meters underground. “We also seal-off the deep aquifers from the shallow water sources located above, so that it won’t have side effects on underground water near the surface,” he says.

He is making this effort so that the mining business, which is springing up at a remarkable speed in Mongolia, won’t take away water from neighboring communities or animals and herders residing in the region.

Like Ulziibaya, Mongolians today recognize the need to balance development with environmental protection, as the vast reserve of sought-after minerals is driving the country’s economic growth at 17% a year.

“We inherited from our ancestors the traditional customs, nomadic culture and religion. They have taught us to respect and love Mother Nature,” says Ch. Jargalsaikhan, Vice Minister of Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism (MNET). “As mining is recognized as the key sector of Mongolia’s development agenda, environmental issues are becoming increasingly broader while economic development and living standards are improving.”

To address environmental issues, the World Bank, together with the Government of Mongolia, began to administer the Netherlands-Mongolia Trust Fund for Environmental Reform (NEMO) in 2005 with funding provided by the Dutch Government. The overarching objective of the funds was to strengthen environment and natural resources management in Mongolia.


The trust fund-supported activities, implemented in two phases, drew to a close in February, 2012. The 1st phase, which ran from 2005-2006, obtained impressive results, including:

  • The establishment of sound baselines of knowledge for environmental and natural resource management that can be used as benchmarks for measuring progress (or regress).
  • Wide media coverage of the program that increased the visibility of environmental affairs in the country. 
  • Enlarging the pool of environmental practitioners
  • Helping the MNET begin to prioritize responses among the many environmental problems the country faces.

The 2nd phase (2007-2011) continued to advance the environmental agenda in Mongolia. Its major outcomes include:

  • Searchable, web-accessible databases on environment and natural resources management, available in both Mongolian and English;
  • An increase in the coverage of NEMO-related issues in the media;
  • Continuation of a small grants program for environmental activities at the national and local levels; and
  • A strategy and action plan covering priorities from 2012 to 2021.

" We also seal-off the deep aquifers from the shallow water sources located above, so that it won’t have side effects on underground water near the surface. "

G. Ulziibaya

a senior hydrologist at Oyu Tolgoi


Among the many activities implemented since 2005, the Small Grants Program (SGP) gets very positive reviews with government officials and local communities.

Local groups, such as NGOs (non-governmental organizations), student clubs and herder communities, competed for small grants by submitting innovative environmental proposals. Since 2006, nearly 2,500 proposals were received, of which 220 were given grants.

One of the proposals targeted waste paper management in Kharkhorin soum (city) of Uvurkhangai aimag (province). Recycling is not yet common in Mongolia. So the SGP provided funding for them to begin elevating awareness and changing perceptions about the need to recycle. 

In 2010 alone, more than 30 tons of waste paper were collected and sent to a recycling plant to be processed into toilet paper. A class on recycling will even be incorporated in the local secondary schools’ curriculum. 

"Now, people see that collecting and processing waste is more profitable than just throwing it away, both in economic and environmental terms,” says Susanne Roelofs, the NEMO program facilitator.

Another highlight is the Wildlife Picture Index (WPI) that has been used to monitor Mongolia’s biodiversity. WPI is a method that collects images using remote "camera traps," which automatically photograph anything that lopes, waddles, or slinks past. Then, photos of animals collected this way are run through a statistical analysis to produce metrics for diversity and distribution for a broad range of wildlife.

"We considered it beneficial to implement a multi-year WPI-based project in Mongolia, as the country’s biodiversity is under stress and on the decline,” says Jim Reichert, a Senior Infrastructure Specialist at the World Bank.

Illegal hunting and wildlife trade have put animals throughout Mongolia at risk. According to the Mongolian Red List of Mammals, 79% of Mongolian ungulate species (hoofed mammals, like camels and donkeys) is regionally threatened, and 12% of Mongolian carnivores and 12% of rodents are also threatened.

Using the Wildlife Picture Index to identify areas where species are declining most rapidly, conservationists were able to determine where to focus their efforts to help stem the tide of biodiversity loss over vast landscapes of Mongolia.

Looking Ahead

With the support of NEMO, the MNET took the lead in developing Mongolia’s “Environmental Master Plan – 2021”, in consultations with its staff across the country and environmental NGOs. This document covers the sector’s reform strategy and policy. A plan with actions to implement the strategy will also be presented to the Cabinet and approved by Parliament.

Talking about next steps, Ch. Jargalsaikhan says that “the systems for public participatory and monitoring management should be improved, so that the economic profits generated from natural resources can be used, in turn, for nature and environmental protection.”

What’s more, there is an imminent need to implement fully the concept of a “Green Economy”, he adds, “although the Dutch Government’s generous funding has come to a close, environmental reform in Mongolia has no end.”