ERDENEBULGAN, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Brown and green water filled with waste and garbage rushes out of a large iron pipe at the new wastewater treatment plant here in Erdenebulgan.
The smell is nauseating, and the sound is deafening. Soon, however, the water will be filtered through an elaborate system of wide and narrow paths, which separate out waste. From there, the water flows into a biological treatment section, where microorganisms break down organic matter even further. Finally, it’s decontaminated with a saline solution.
At the end of the process, the water’s hue has lightened to taupe and the smell is virtually gone. Tests confirm that the water is 93% clean.
The facility is part of a major national project to modernize wastewater treatment plants across Mongolia, which began in 2017. In much of the country, outdated wastewater treatment plants don’t meet current requirements. These aging plants have caused significant environmental problems, poisoning local livestock and threatening herders’ livelihoods.
The new treatment plant, one of the first completed as part of the national initiative, has alleviated those problems. “Our cattle drank toilet water, and we were poisoned as well,” says Batdorj Jambalsuren, a herder in Erdenebulgan, located in the country’s interior. “Before, the smell was terrible – we could smell waste right away. But now it is great.”
Around 30% of all households in Mongolia are connected to wastewater treatment plants and sewage lines. There were 103 wastewater treatment facilities nationwide as of 2006, according to the most recent data from the Ministry of Construction and Urban Development. But only 40% were in regular operation and met environmental requirements. More than a quarter of treatment plants didn’t operate regularly, and 34% were inoperable.
Last year, a government inspection of 35 treatment plants across the country revealed that 86% of them represented a high or medium risk to the environment and human health. Samples showed that the treated water at some of the plants contained salmonella, says Bayasgalan Batbayar, a senior state hygiene inspector at the General Agency for Specialized Inspection.
“So far, no human lives have been lost because of this, but the supply of substandard wastewater to the environment means that it is polluting the environment,” Bayasgalan says.
Some treatment plants began operation as early as 1954, and many suffer from outdated technology and insufficient capacity.
Before the new plant was constructed in Erdenebulgan, household wastewater was simply filtered, then discharged into an open field, where it was left to seep into the ground.
This wastewater absorption area merged with the local cattle pasture, where many herder families spent their summers.
“The wastewater used to be like an open lake,” says Sed Dashdendev, 73, who has been herding livestock for 21 years.
In the heat of summer, he says, animals would drink from the wastewater and get sick – they would lie down with their stomachs swollen and tails curling.
“The livestock would be crowded around here, which was really heartbreaking to see,” he says. “And this area had an extremely nasty smell, totally rotten.”
Now, however, herders can let their livestock roam without such health concerns. And there are other benefits as well.
“Graywater produced in this process could be used at thermal power stations and for the first washing stage at leather and wool factories, and this enables us to use graywater in case of decreased water reserves,” says Gonchigoo Natsagdorj, the engineer in charge of the Erdenebulgan plant.
Gonchigoo says the sludge that’s separated from the water during treatment can also be turned into fertilizer, providing even more environmental benefits.
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The Mongolian government launched its plan to upgrade the country’s wastewater treatment plants in 2017, says Tsogtsaikhan Ganchuluun, head of the Public Utilities and Engineering Infrastructure Policy Implementation and Coordination Department at the Ministry of Construction and Urban Development.
New treatment plants have opened in Arkhangai, Uvurkhangai and Bulgan provinces, and the government aims to complete the project by 2022.
But the treatment plants are expensive to build and operate. Tsogtsaikhan says the government is facing financial challenges related to the renovation and construction of three treatment plants.
Bulganchimeg Baldantsan, director of Ar Us Undarga, the company that operates the Erdenebulgan plan, says it costs an average of 300 million Mongolian togrogs (around $105,000) each year to treat the wastewater, and the plant is currently operating at a loss. She says it will be difficult to continue operations without additional financial support this year.
Still, Tsogtsaikhan views the project as an important step to ensure the health and safety of Mongolians and the environment.
“Grasses and animals will no longer come into contact with wastewater, and purified water will come out,” he says. “This is environmentally friendly work.”