By Anar Ulikpan (EV 2010 & 2012, currently PhD Candidate at the School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Australia)

 

Mongolia is a former socialist country that has been experiencing major socio-economic changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country has been transitioning from a centrally planned socialist country to a market economy and multiparty democracy over the last two decades. Mongolia is now classified as a lower middle income country and nicknamed “Minegolia” because of recent rapid economic growth driven by mining.  According to the World Bank, the share of mining in GDP now stands at 20 percent, twice the proportion of a decade ago. The economy grew by 17.3 percent in 2011, compared to 6.4 percent GDP growth in 2010. Also in the next five years growth is expected to continue at a double digit rate. Significant progress has been made in achieving several Millennium Development Goals at the national level. This all sounds very promising! But, to what extent do these burgeoning results impact the everyday realities for the majority of Mongolians? Moreover, what are the implications for people’s health?

 

Unfortunately, the response from ordinary people in Mongolia to the above question is not very positive. There are increasing disparities between the rich and poor, both in cities and in rural areas, especially in health, education and social services, and close to 30% of Mongolia’s population is below the national poverty line, raising serious concerns about who is actually benefiting from this rapid growth. How sustainable and inclusive is this growth?  The growing interest of wealthy multinational investors in this relatively unknown, very sparsely populated (2.8 mln, 2011), landlocked country sandwiched between the two giants Russia and China has suddenly made my country economic headline news. The people of Mongolia have begun to realize the importance of their country (but not necessarily of the country’s inhabitants) to the rest of the world.

 

Let me show the view from the ground on the implications of this mineral wealth on health.  First and foremost is the danger to the health and safety of the communities adjacent to the mining operations, despite the safety programs run by a few mining companies.  Local health services are overstretched due to increased road traffic accidents caused by the increased volume of vehicles, industrial accidents during the mine construction and dust induced respiratory and eye infections. Injury and respiratory infections are amongst the top five causes of morbidity and mortality in the population in the mining areas. Besides, access to health services by the transient population is uncertain as local health facilities receive their budget based on the number of locally registered people. The rapid influx of workers also contributes to increasing sexually transmitted infections and a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

 

Mongolians are proud to be one of the last nomadic people in the world. Sadly, mining might end this pride. Extensive and potentially permanent devastation of land and forests, and increased dust cover over large pastoral areas, are already contaminating pasture and water sources, threatening nomadic life. In the last five years more and more nomadic families have moved to urban areas because of their inability to adapt to their rapidly changing circumstances. Today, not even a quarter of the population lives in the traditional way. The high influx of migrant workers (Mongolian and international) and consequent overpopulation in the capital city poses a number of public health challenges: lack of proper housing, an increase in infectious and respiratory diseases, inaccessible health and welfare services for the unregistered population, etc. People who have moved into the city tend to reside in the outskirts of the city, living in felt covered tent-like ghers (moveable dwellings). They burn low quality coal to keep warm during winter making Ulaanbaatar one of the most polluted capital cities in the world. Consequently, respiratory disease is one of the top five causes of death. Poor sanitation and limited access to safe drinking water is increasingly becoming a key cause of illnesses in poor people living in these expanding slum districts on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

 

Although the biggest mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe Mines are endeavoring to mitigate mining related risks, they are not operating within a broader planning framework, nor are they coordinating with each other and with other government social sector services. Many of the smaller and local mining companies are adopting a “take what you can and damn the consequences” approach, which unfortunately is often aided and abetted by local politicians eager to get their share of riches as quickly as possible. If this attitude prevails, Mongolia will face the “paradox of plenty” with widespread non-salutary impact on the health and safety of the people and on their environment.

 

A number of civil movements led by local people have been quite active in demanding responsible mining with potential positive impacts on average people’s life in Mongolia in the first few years of the mining operations. Unfortunately many of them have lost their original vision and motivation, partly because both of the main parties made “attractive” promises for one time cash transfers of the wealth from mining (approx. 1150 USD) to each citizen (Cash handouts did indeed materialize, but far below what had been promised). On the other hand, in the media, pundits (often also working as mining company advisors) are asking “How long do you want to be called a beggar, by outsiders, while you are sitting on the gold”? Even if not all Mongolians are convinced, they have quite some influence over public opinion.

 

The country must not forget its own recent (and bitter) lessons of being heavily dependent upon the mining sector. The unpredictability of the market prices of gold and copper will continue to threaten economic stability and hence development sustainability. In 2005-2006 Mongolia enjoyed fast economic growth  when world copper prices almost tripled. However, in 2008, when the copper price dropped by half, the country experienced an economic “bust” and recognized its lack of strategic investment planning for the development of other sectors during the “boom” period. Learning to better allocate mining resource revenues and investing in health and social services and infrastructure whenever a “boom” occurs is a must.

 

Still, if getting “rich” as a nation increases disparities and comes at the expense of our people’s health and safety, erodes their heritage and culture, negatively impacts the poor and vulnerable, it  is safe to say that this is not the “development” our people had in mind.

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