Notes from the Field

Five Days in Mongolia: Catching Waterbugs and Learning What They Tell

November 4, 2009

From afar, Mongolia and Laos may not have a lot in common. From an environmental point of view, however, both nations share the same concern: water is a precious resource that needs to be protected.

I learned first-hand of that shared concern when I traveled to Mongolia in September. I was there to learn from The Asia Foundation’s impressive Water Quality Monitoring (WQM) program in Mongolia and to find out if the program could be adapted and used in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where I am based and where a water quality and environmental monitoring project on a much smaller scale was launched by the Foundation in 2008. Both Mongolia and Laos rely heavily on their water resources and share similar concerns about environmental degradation possibly caused by pressing needs for the countries’ economic development.

Monitoring and evaluating Mongolia’s river water quality is one of the key components of “Securing Our Future,” an innovative, ground-breaking program managed by The Asia Foundation. (More information about the program is available here.) The program is based on the idea that citizens can play a critical role in monitoring their local environments – and rivers provide a good subject for environmental monitoring. The water-monitoring program uses aquatic macro-invertebrates (or “waterbugs”) that inhabit a river site as indicators for river water quality monitoring.

Using a kick net to collect waterbugs

Using a kick net to collect waterbugs.

Why waterbugs? They’re sensitive to pollution in the river but cannot move easily to escape it. And they are big enough to collect by using non-sophisticated, inexpensive equipment that can be used repeatedly. The protocol used in the WQM program is simple for average people to be trained in sufficiently enough to enable them to do the monitoring themselves.

The two citizen workshops on water-monitoring that I observed in Arhangai aimag – a largely pastoral province with a population of less than 100,000 people – were inspiring. Participants learned the concept and techniques of water quality monitoring in class. Thanks to the population’s high literacy rate, the seemingly daunting – and bulky – WQM manual wasn’t difficult for participants to follow. After learning theoretical applications, they got into the river to collect waterbugs and analyzed the creepy crawlies for telltale sings of the river’s health. The Field Guide of Aquatic Invertebrates of Mongolia, where waterbugs are categorized into three groups (with green, yellow, or red marks) generally tells how they are sensitive to or tolerant of pollution. Field equipment was given to the communities after the workshops for them to continue monitoring their rivers.

The workshops were attended by a broad cross-section of the community, including a local environmental inspector, a biology teacher, a doctor, a water deliveryman and a local hospital worker. I was impressed with their enthusiasm, engagement and initiative, not to mention their willingness to exchange information and ideas. Every participant found collecting waterbugs a fun activity. Interestingly, they had not noticed these bugs before. Had it been in Laos, the local people would tell you not just which kinds of bugs are edible but which ones are the most delicious.

Identifying waterbugs and interpreting the results.

Identifying waterbugs and interpreting the results.

The key to Mongolia’s success in helping preserve its environment lies in the traditional sense among Mongolians that they are a part of the earth upon which they live and have a profound respect for all forms of nature. Mr. G. Chagnaadorj, who accompanied us on our trip to Arhangai, is a good example. He is the Executive Director of the Mongolian Nature Protection Civil Movement Coalition, a local partner of the Foundation whose vision is a healthy and safe environment for Mongolians. Originally from Arhangai aimag, he feels personally responsible for protecting his homeland from environmental threats. Little wonder he and the coalition of river movements he leads have played invaluable roles in Mongolia’s water-monitoring endeavors and in training people across Mongolia in environmental stewardship, including better monitoring of the quality and quantity of surface water.

The WQM program in Laos, in comparison to Mongolia’s, is still in its infancy. Laos hardly has any baseline data on the health of its river systems and limited resources for community training. Still, the Foundation’s WQM program in Mongolia offers valuable lessons for Laos. Perhaps the foremost of them is building awareness in Laos that there are easy things they can do to preserve and protect water resources. Efforts should also be made to make water monitoring relevant to people’s daily lives through the use of simple and practical yet credible methods. Building a reliable database about surface water quality and further encouraging the community-based monitoring approach that The Asia Foundation is spearheading are other important aims. Finally, Laos has a long cultural history of living in harmony with nature. Such knowledge, combined with training in water quality monitoring, ought to be passed on from local citizens to future generations.

My five-day trip to Mongolia wasn’t just fruitful from the professional point of view. I personally learned many things from this visit, especially about what one can do to use natural resources more wisely. The people of Mongolia showed me how precious water is. Both Laos, where I work, and Thailand, my home country, are tropical nations blessed with plenty of water. I could discard a bucket of water without feeling guilty. In sharp contrast, many gers (traditional Mongolian homes) in the countryside have a tiny water dispenser above sinks, with barely enough water for more than one person to use, at least according to Thai standards. And this water has to be retrieved from springs or rivers often a great distance from the ger.

During my trip, I brushed my teeth and washed my face with just two glasses of water. It made an impression on me. Upon my return, I changed my toothpaste – the older brand creates too many bubbles that required excess water to rinse. Maybe I will change my liquid soap as well.

Achariya Kohtbantau is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer in Laos.

View all posts by Achariya Kohtbantau

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