On the trail of water
7 September 2010
Photo: Lucas Menzel
Geographers from Heidelberg University are on the trail of water. In the Mongolian mountain region of Khentii, they are studying the flow of water in the mountain streams and its relation to the water supply in the dry foothills. The work is part of a joint project that is examining hydro-ecologic issues in the model region of Mongolia, with a view in particular toward sustainable water use. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) is lending its support to the second phase of the international “Integrated Water Resource Management in Central Asia” project with a total of 6.6 million euros over a period of three years. In addition to teams of scientists in Germany, partners in Mongolia are also involved.
The sensitive ecosystems of the cold, dry steppe regions and the boreal coniferous forests in central Asia are characterised in particular by a general shortage of water. Adequate water is transported only via rivers that have their source in the mountains, such as the Khentii in the north of Mongolia. Very little precipitation falls in the foothills themselves and about 90 percent of that evaporates. “The water in the mountains does pose a mystery to scientists, however. We are using measurements and simulation models to try to understand where it comes from and why it is so often lacking,” explains Prof. Dr. Lucas Menzel, who is coordinating the work at Heidelberg University.
According to Prof. Menzel, major climatic fluctuations have been observed in the sparsely settled mountain region of Khentii since the 1990s. The causes of this phenomenon, which also affect the flow and supply of water, are disputed. Is it the local impact of climate change or the result of cyclical drought? The Heidelberg researchers will conduct intensive field measurements, study soils and vegetation as well as set up hydrological and climatological measurement stations. “When we have enough data we can use simulation models to track the flow of water above and below the ground. We would also like to use this data to assess the regional consequences of climate change and apply this knowledge to other regions in central Asia,” explains Prof. Menzel.
The studies being done by researchers from Heidelberg University’s Institute of Geography are designed to support the establishment of an environmental monitoring system in Mongolia. It is being implemented together with Mongolian scientists and authorities. Seminars on climate and water as well as field training are being offered to students in Germany and Mongolia. Approximately 410,000 euros of the BMBP funding are available for the Heidelberg research work.
Other studies within the framework of the joint project are focussed on the Kharaa River basin. Its highly variable climate causes intense annual and seasonal fluctuations in the availability of water. The amount of water available for use is just barely reliable, and the need is increasing due to population growth, burgeoning economic activities, as well as agriculture and mining. “Multi-faceted conflicts over water use are imminent, as is an ‘overuse’ of water resources. Structures to regulate the distribution of water are completely lacking,” emphasises Prof. Menzel. Taking into account all the usage interests, the research is aimed at establishing an effective system of water management, ensuring the attainment and improvement of water quality, and contributing to the protection of ecosystems.
As Prof. Menzel explains, a water protection system and a comprehensive protection concept should be developed for the especially sensitive regions along the Kharaa. In addition to scientists from Heidelberg University, the joint “Integrated Water Resource Management in Central Asia: Model Region Mongolia” project is also being supported by experts from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), the Fraunhofer Application Center for System Technology in Ilmenau, the Bauhaus University Weimar and the University of Kassel. A consortium of German and Mongolian industrial partners is also involved.
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Prof. Dr. Lucas Menzel
Institute of Geography
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