Mirage-like, a slinky piece of asphalt appears on the horizon after hours of driving across the dusty Gobi Desert. What’s coming into sight is the only paved surface for miles around. Yet many trucks are driving alongside the new highway, not on it.
In southern Mongolia’s mineral-rich hills, mining companies – foreign-run and local alike – are having trouble sharing something that should be a no-brainer: the roads. Despite the region’s remoteness, now two more roads are being built parallel to the new highway. They’re within spitting distance of each other – all heading through the same valleys and over the same hills towards China. And it’s the local nomadic herders paying the price.
Energy Resources, a private Mongolian firm, built the one existing road from its coal mine in Tavan Tolgoi – the world's largest untapped coking coal deposit – some 245 kilometers to the Chinese border at Gashuun Sukhait. When it opened in 2011, herders in the vicinity welcomed the promised relief from dust stirred up by the constant traffic of coal trucks to the border. But with so many trucks still running on the bare earth, and construction seemingly nonstop alongside the new road, the air is just getting worse, residents and environmentalists complain.
That road was built on a 10-year build-operate-transfer concession agreement with the government, permitting Energy Resources to charge tolls on third-party users until handing the rights over to the state in 2021. But drivers working for neighboring mines say the toll of 180,000 tugriks (about $130) per load is exorbitant. One driver explains why he can’t afford to drive on the road: "We're given 200,000 tugriks to deliver our load to the border and come back. If we pay the toll, there's nothing left for us," he said. To evade the toll, he drives on dirt tracks parallel to the new paved road.
A spokesperson from Energy Resources would not discuss the toll rate. In an email exchange, however, he defended the toll scheme and said the paved road still saves other companies money on fuel, time, and vehicle wear. Energy Resources has also recently signed an agreement with the government to build a railroad along the same route.
Running parallel to the Energy Resources road is a yet-unpaved road being built by a subsidiary of a private Mongolian company called Ajnai Corporation. A 2011 report published by USAID, Washington's aid arm, raised concerns about Ajnai’s intention to build the road to avoid the Energy Resources toll. One problem, the report said, is that “local governments have the authority to construct their own roads, so there is no coordination.”
One hundred kilometers further south, the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine -- a joint venture between Canada's Ivanhoe Mines, British-Australian-owned Rio Tinto and the Mongolian government -- is building yet another road, which will run alongside the Energy Resources road to the same border checkpoint at Gashuun Sukhait. The three roads crisscross each other at times but mostly run parallel. If all three are paved, this will mean over 500 kilometers of surfaced roads on this single, sparsely populated route. By comparison, in 2010, according to UN figures, Mongolia – a country roughly the size of Western Europe – had less than 2,600 kilometers of paved roads in total.
These routes bisect wildlife corridors between two adjacent national parks, the Small Gobi Special Protected Areas.
"Counting the proposed railroad, this will mean four parallel roads. Wildlife in this region, particularly the khulan [Mongolian wild ass] and gazelle, have already been affected by mining activities. When the roads are built, their migration routes will be cut off by not just one, but four dangerous crossings," said Batsukh Choijonst, an ecologist at the park headquarters in Khanbogd. He said he asked government officials to find a way to limit the number of roads, but never got a response.
When asked if there was a way to collaborate with Energy Resources to improve the capacity of the existing paved road and share it, an Oyu Tolgoi spokesman said building a new road was part of its promise to the government.
Watchdogs feel the government is not doing enough to promote infrastructure efficiency. "We think it's the government's responsibility to fix its policies. You cannot allow every mine to have its own road. … It's ridiculous," said Sukhgerel Dugersuren, director of Oyu Tolgoi Watch, a non-governmental watchdog group.
Experts working on transportation development in other parts of the country also admit concern. "In building any linear infrastructure one would want to ensure there's rational planning to avoid duplication of routes to minimize impact on the environment," said Shane Rosenthal, deputy country director of the Asian Development Bank.
For herders affected by the dust, paved roads are petty compensation. At a camp site about two kilometers from the Oyu Tolgoi road construction, a local goat and camel herder, Dambadorj Mukhbayar, noted that the roads are fragmenting pastures and creating unnecessary dangers for his animals: " Oyu Tolgoi is starting to pave the road now, after bringing in heavy equipment on dirt roads all these years. How can the new roads compensate for the damage already done?"
Pearly Jacob is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar.
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