China and Mongolia clash over how to exploit the Gobi desert

A Mongolian monk tends to his solar panels, deep in the Gobi desert. EPA

China and Mongolia clash over how to exploit the Gobi desert

A Mongolian monk tends to his solar panels, deep in the Gobi desert. EPA

The Gobi Desert in East Asia conjures images of a remote landscape, with nomads riding across the steppe. In fact, today it is home to herders and farmers, the world’s fastest-growing economy, vast copper and gold mines and is China’s main domestic energy source. The imagined expanses and agro-pastoral livelihoods exist alongside mountains of coal, modern cities, desert agriculture and environmental challenges to its viability and future well-being.

As Chinese president Xi Jingping arrives in Mongolia to discuss a series of trade and energy deals that would give Mongolia better access to global markets, it is worth looking at the shared desert that lies between Beijing and Ulaan Baatar. As the two nations work together, reconciling differences in the Gobi will be a major challenge.

At 2.3m km2 the Gobi is the world’s third largest desert, covering most of Mongolia and much of northern China. Yet 25m people live in an area that stretches from the edge of Beijing to the Kazakh and Russian borders in the west and north. Across the Gobi, conservation reflects a shifting balance between human development and natural fragility.

Home to the world’s highest sand dunes (more than 300 metres), most of the Gobi is a dry gravel plain and sparse rangeland. The landscape challenges residents with extreme cold (to -40C), hot summers (to 40C), periodic droughts and minimal surface water. Humans drive the need for extensive groundwater use, particularly in China, where the government encourages farming even though annual precipitation is often less than 200mm.

The dunes can reach the clouds. Radek Krol, CC BY-NC-ND

This leads to competition for limited environmental resources between agriculture, cities such as Hohhot, Baotou and Urumqi (each more than 2m people), mining and traditional herding (Mongolia) and settled livestock-raising (China). Today the vast majority of water in Inner Mongolia – the autonomous Chinese province that borders Mongolia itself – goes for coal extraction and processing to meet China’s energy demands.

Conservation of the tenuous desert environment and rural livelihoods encounter several socio-economic forces and physical challenges. Though a shared landscape, the issues differ greatly between China and Mongolia as policy, culture, history and democracy/autocracy separate the neighbours.

In Mongolia water is essential for animals and household needs yet supply is obscured in shallow and deep aquifers that are difficult for locals to tap. Groundwater, essential for the desert’s new copper, gold and coal mining, requires money and technology to exploit and thus is pursued by regional and international mining companies. This results in conflict between local residents and businesses for limited water and raises issues of land use and livelihood viability among mobile herders, still the dominant lifestyle in rural Mongolia.

Fighting desertification on the Chinese fringes of the desert. EPA

In China strong state control and intervention has resulted in a manipulated water system where farmers need swipe-cards to get allocated water, use of natural pastures for animals is restricted and ecological resettlement sees once-mobile herders settled in villages by government decree. Removal of livestock opens land for farming and most importantly, for profitable mining that often is owned, or directly benefits, local governments. Mining in the region has led to economic growth, jobs, pollution, land degradation, dust generation and settlements that lack basic infrastructure.

The notion of conservation and the role of nature in everyday life is integral to the Mongolian conception of the world whereas the Chinese model is focused on economic and infrastructure development irrespective of environmental impact. This splits the Gobi at the border; on one side roads, fencing, settlement, degradation and policy has ended free movement in China and sees the environment as something to be managed and exploited to ultimately benefit the several layers of government.

A copper mine in the Mongolian desert stretches further than the eye can see. EPA

This leaves one to ask “what conservation” as water, land and vegetation are used for financial benefit, not as an inherent social good to protect. In Mongolia national parks comprise 13% of the country and species such as the Gobi bear, gazelle, marmot and Saker Falcon benefit from social conceptions of nature’s importance and varying degrees of protection.

Though a vast area, the Gobi’s harsh environment and intricate ecosystem make wide swathes of open land and limited human use of nature key to conserving flora and fauna. This means creating non-financial value for wild steppe and desert regions. Without care the environment can become less productive and potentially experience desertification. Preserving nature takes insightful policy, sustainable land use, recognition of environmental benefits and the support of rural and mining communities.

In the Gobi this takes place against Mongolia’s weak institutional framework and China’s all-powerful bureaucracy. While the Communist Party remains in power conservation will be sacrificed for perceptions of growth and social stability. The picture in Mongolia is more optimistic as history and cultural preferences favour a strong role for nature in Mongolia’s conception of the world.