Rivers without Boundaries

Selenga River Basin Threatened with Dams

The Selenge (Selenga) River is the principal source of Baikal Lake responsible for 50% of water inflow, supply of most sediment , nutrients and pollutants. Most of Selenge River basin belongs to Mongolia and approximately half of its flow is formed there. Orkhon River, is the largest tributary to Selenge in Mongolia. Sediment transport from Selenge River formed unique giant delta that buffers lake Baikal from external influences. The Delta serves as fish nursery and migration route for many commercially caught (cisco, grayling, etc) and endemic (Baikal sturgeon, etc.) fishes of Baikal Lake and is listed under Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance. Due to unique biodiversity and giant freshwater resources Baikal Lake with substantial part of its watershed is dedicated as the World Natural Heritage site under UNESCO World Heritage Convention.


Now the River, the Delta and the Lake are severely threatened by proposed hydropower development. Mongolian officials claim that the World Bank’s loan currently supports initial development of two large dams in Selenge River Basin. Two workings group in charge of one dam each were formed under the Mining Infrastructure Support Project (MINIS), and  are preparing for the  feasibility studies for the Shuren Hydropower dam on the Selenge River and another dam on the Orkhon River to support Orkhon-Gobi water conveyance project.

The earliest feasibility studies on planning of 400 megawatts capacity hydro power plant on Selenge River first started during the period of 1974-1975 by former Soviet Institute  “Hydro-Project” and Shuren Hydro was conceived without consideration environmental or social impacts of hydropower. Now officials say that, after the WB approves feasibility study, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Development  will finance the hydroelectric power station and they expect research and the preliminary establishments to be conducted by 2013.

“The establishment of hydroelectric power station is expected to help manage the rising power demand in Mongolia and to make efficient and wise use of renewable resources. The dam power station should decrease green house gasses by 700 thousand tons and save 300 thousand tons of coal a year,” said the Manager of WB-sponsored MINIS Project, B.Enkhbaatar. (http://asian-power.com)

Orkhon-Gobi Project envisions smaller dam and water transfer by 1000 km long pipeline to deliver water to Oyu Tolgoi, Tavan Tolgoi and other major mines in South Gobi.. In recent IFC-sponsored ESIA of Oyu Tolgoi Project this idea is called “highly speculative and not responding to modern sustainability requirements”.

Meanwhile social and environmental impacts expected from damming the Selenge River and its largest tributary are huge and irreversible. Dams will stop migration of aquatic species, decrease downstream supply of sediments necessary to sustain critical habitats in the river and delta and distort natural flow regime on principal Baikal tributary. This together with reservoir formation will displace and negatively impact substantial local population in Mongolia and Russia, and may affect animal husbandry, tourism, fisheries, transportation and hydropower on the Lake Baikal outflow.


Due to highly variable climate and scarce water resources in Mongolia only two middle-sized 10+MW hydropower plants have been built to date: Durgun (Khovd aimag) and Taishir (Zavkhan aimag). Kuwait Fund, Clean Development Mechanism, Hydro-project Institute, Chinese, Australian  and European companies participated in financing, design and construction of those plants. Before the construction WWF invited scientists to conduct region-wide assessment of climate change and issued clear warning regarding negative social, economic and environmental consequences of this undertaking. Nevertheless, the Government decided to go ahead with those projects and by now they delivered most of predicted and several unpredicted negative consequences, including complete interception of flow by Taishir Dam during initial period of operation, that caused serious hardships to several hundred families of local herders in downstream areas and evoked protests from national citizen groups. Both plants produce only small fraction of electricity promised in CDM documents. Judging from new hydropower plans no conclusions were drawn from this failure.

The issue is becoming source of tension between Mongolia and Russia, with growing concern in parliaments, multiple agencies and scientific institutions of two countries. Many international environmental groups have already voiced their concern regarding the Shuiren Hydro and other dams in Mongolia: Earth Island Institute, Greenpeace, WWF, etc. The International NGO Forum on Protection of World Heritage Properties in Saint Petersburg handed to the 36th session of UNESCO World Heritage Committee a resolution that says:« the Government of Mongolia is planning to build several hydropower stations in the Selenga’s river basin and consequences will harm the freshwater ecosystems of the Lake Baikal World Heritage Site, especially in the delta of the Selenga  river which is an internationally important wetland protected by the Ramsar Convention.”. Also see attached the open letter to the WB issued in Septemeber by Sosnovka Coalition of Environmental and Indigenous People NGOs of Siberia and Far East.

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  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Understanding the Challenges of Water Development and Hydropower Plant Projects | Mongolia Focus

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