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Dashdorj Ganbaatar
Room 50, Government House No 9, Enkhtaivan Avenue 16A,
Ulaanbaatar 210349, Mongolia


Because of the low precipitation (280-320 mm in the main irrigation areas, 90 mm in the Gobi and Steppe zones), rainfed crop production is limited. A simple irrigation system for 17 000 ha is now being used for crop production and the rest is used for pasture and hay production. At present Mongolia has no fish production in irrigation systems. Mongolia has 75 species of fish which belong to 36 genera and 11 families. There are over 30 species of commercial value. As the fishery resources in lakes and rivers are limited and easily overexploited there is a need for a rational management plan which would develop fishery as a sustainable food resource. More attention has to be paid to aquaculture, as well as to better preservation and processing of fish harvested by capture fisheries. At present Mongolia produces no fish in irrigation systems.

1. Introduction

Mongolia covers 1.5 million km2 and is the fifth largest country in Asia. It is located in the north-central Asia between Russia and China. With an average altitude of 1580 m above sea level, it is one of the highest countries in the world.

Geographically, Mongolia can be divided into four regions, namely, Khangai forest region, eastern steppe region, Gobi desert region and the semi-desert region. Only 10 percent of the country is forested. The primary sources of water are the Altai, Khangai and Khentii mountain ranges. More than half of the rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean, the remaining flow into the enclosed drainage basin of Central Asia.

Mongolia has a continental climate which is characterized by extremes of heat and cold, with an average temperature of + 25 oC during summer and -25 oC in winter. The country is renowned for its blue skies with an average of 250 days of sunshine per year.

The country is rich in plants and wild animals, with an estimated 130 species of mammals, 370 species of birds and 75 species of fish. There are some 2 000 species of plants in Mongolia.

Mongolia has a relatively sparse population of some 2.6 million, which grows at annual rate of 2.5 percent. The population density is 1.5 person per km2. Among the different ethnic groups Khalkha accounts for 72 percent of the total population. The official language is Mongolian which is spoken throughout the country. Buddhism is the official and most common religion.

The major export from Mongolia are livestock, meat, hides, skins and cashmere. A medium amount of gold and a large amount of copper are also exported. High transportation costs hamper export of other minerals.

Mongolia has more than 4 000 lakes of which only 200 have a surface area of more than 5 km2. However, the few large lakes account for almost 90 perceny of the total water surface of Mongolia. Most Mongolian lakes are shallow, with depths rarely reaching 20 m.

The largest lake in Mongolia is Lake Khuvsgul in the far north of the country. It has a surface area of 2 760 km2, volume of 381 km3, and maximum depth of 262 m. It holds almost four fifths of all lake water in Mongolia.

2. Irrigation systems and agriculture in Mongolia

Traditionally in Mongolia agriculture is a priority for the development of water resources. Since the establishment of the Water Supply Department under the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Agriculture in 1938, until 1990 most attention was being given to the development of water supply for animal husbandry and agriculture. Industry development started in the middle of the 1930s. With the construction of apartment buildings, which started in 1960, a centralized water supply network was established. However, there was no integrated policy on water, and related organisations were established to settle only the immediate problems. The Water Supply Department of Ulaanbaatar was established in 1959.

An increase in the number of factories from the end of 1960 and intensification of the urbanisation were the social and economic prerequisites for the revision of the government policy on water. The agriculture sector was developing rapidly and the population concentration in urban and rural areas was increasing. At that time it was realized that the development of irrigated agriculture was a real necessity and this is also the situation today.

Measures taken during the years of intensive development of water resources resulted in major improvements of water supply for the population, industry, animal husbandry and agriculture. Water supply to the population in urban areas and industry was solved and many pastures were under irrigation. Apart from that, irrigation systems for watering crops and vegetable producing areas were set up and these have been producing about 20 percent of the required harvest.

Since the beginning of the implementation of irrigation the Russian Federation and other former socialist countries have assisted with the improvements in the water resources sector and with training of specialists.

The establishment of the Ministry of Water Economy of the Mongolian Peoples’ Republic in 1965 was a significant factor in the further development of the water resources sector, including water supply for animal husbandry and crop and vegetable production.

Due to the dry character of the country, especially in the Gobi and steppe zones, a reliable harvest of all kind of vegetables and other crops is possible only using irrigation.

Because of the low precipitation (280-320 mm in the main irrigation areas, 90 mm in the Gobi and steppe zones), rainfed crop production is limited. As most precipitation falls in summer (80-90 percent) little humidity is kept in the soil. Most seasons are windy, especially the spring (April-May). Due to the low precipitation and windy conditions there is less possibility for snow to collect around plants to increase the soil humidity.

In the 1990s, 50 000 ha were irrigated. A simple irrigation system for 17 000 ha is now being used for crop production and the rest is used for pasture and hay production. At present Mongolia has no fish production in irrigation systems.

In 1986-1990, 645 000 ha of crops were planted annually, out of which 500 000 ha were for wheat, 11 200 ha for potatoes and 3 500 ha for vegetables, resulting in a harvest of 806 000 tonnes of crops, of which 633 000 tonnes was wheat, 127 000 tonnes potatoes and 46 000 tonnes vegetables. This satisfied the population demand for wheat flour, potatoes and vegetables. The surplus products were exported. As of 1990, 5.2 percent of the total agricultural area was irrigated.

But the crop production from irrigated areas was experiencing high operation costs, huge energy consumption and shortage of skilled and trained manpower on farms. It was not possible to fully exploit the production potential of irrigated areas. Due to technical and other reasons about 40 irrigated areas, covering a total of some 20 000 ha, were abandoned during the last 10 years.

All irrigation was done by overhead irrigation (spraying), which was difficult to operate and sometimes this method washed out the soil. It also had high operation and maintenance costs, and produced overcapacity which sometimes could not be harvested. As a result sometime more than 50 percent of the irrigation system was not used.

In the past Mongolia was self-sufficient in crop produce. In 1999, because of the hot weather conditions, there was a poor harvest. Irrigation was virtually forgotten although some was privatized, but individual farmers were unable to fully use it. The government has yet to take appropriate measures to revitalize the irrigated agriculture in the country.

Table 1
Agricultural area (in thousand hectares)

Area, crops






Agricultural area, total

125 532.0

118 469.0

118 469.0

128 891.0

129 132.0

out of which:

arable land

1 375.0

1 322.0

1 322.0

1 228.0

1 347.0

meadows & pastures

124 156.0

117 147.0

117 147.0

127 663.0

127 785.0

irrigated land

41 710.0


10 443.0


8 140.0

Sown area, total






out of which:



















fodder crops






Table 1 shows that from the total agriculture area in 1989, 4.9 percent was irrigated, in 1996, 3.03 percent, in 1998, 2.4 percent. It also shows that the irrigated areas have been steadily decreasing.

In 1986, 869 300 tonnes of crops, out of which 15 700 tonnes (2 percent) were harvested from irrigated areas, can be compared with the harvest in 1999 of 171 200 tonnes of crops, out of which 2 500 tonnes (or 1.4 percent) were harvested from the irrigated areas. In other words, over a period of 15 years there was a steady decline to only one fifth of the original production (by tonnage). Comparing 1999 with 1986 the production of wheat declined 3.9 times, potatoes 1.08 times, vegetables 1.1 times, planted fodder crops 40 times. Irrigation systems larger than 500 ha are now privatized, but the privatization has yet to show results in crop production. The programme of rehabilitation of agriculture includes the provision of a soft loan but there has been no investment given for the rehabilitation of irrigation systems.

Table 2
Harvest from irrigated lands (1986-1999) (tonnes/ha)












All crops












































Irrigated fruitberries











Table 2 shows a decrease in crop production on irrigated lands.

It should be noted that in Mongolia it is more convenient to use watering equipment with a small capacity, and it is expected that farmers know about soil humidity and some other basic principles of irrigation farming. Training in irrigation is essential if progress is to be made.

3. Fish fauna and fisheries in Mongolia

3.1 Background

Mongolia has 75 species of fish which belong to 36 genera and 11 families. There are over 30 species of commercial value. In Mongolia, main food components have traditionally been meat and dairy products and only foreigners residing in Mongolia have eaten fish. An increasing number of nationals who have experienced life abroad now also eat fish. Eating habits are changing especially in urban areas such as Ulaanbaatar. Demand for fish is rising and the need for a better utilisation of fishery resources is recognized.

In 1991, the Government of Mongolia outlined the policies for the development of fisheries:

Several studies and experiments have been carried out by three national institutes but implementation of the results and commercial fishery development have yet to take place largely because of lack of experience.

3.2 Fish species distribution

There are three major drainage basins in the country, i.e. the Arctic Ocean Drainage basin, the Pacific Ocean Drainage basin, and the Central Asian Inland Basin. Of the over 4 000 lakes of Mongolia, commercial fish stocks are present in Tsagaan Lake and Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, located in the Arctic Ocean Drainage Basin. Tsagaan Lake, situated in the Darkhad depression in northern Mongolia, has an estimated annual fish production of approximately 100 to 150 tonnes, while that of Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake is 50 to 100 tonnes.

The fish production capacity of Buir Lake in the Pacific Drainage Basin is around 200 tonnes per year. The combined sustainable fish production of all lakes in the Central Asian Inland Drainage Basin is estimated at more than 300 tonnes.

For additional information on fish and fisheries of Mongolia see Dulmaa (1999).

3.3 Preservation of endangered fish species

The Mongolian Law on Hunting adopted in 1995 and supported by other laws and regulations has played an important role in the development of fish culture as well as in the proper use and conservation of fish species in the country.

According to the provisions of this law, the Amur sturgeon (Acipenser schrenki) and Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baeri) are listed as protected species while grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), and tench (Tinca tinca) are registered as endangered. In addition, six species of fish have been included in the Mongolian Red Book and measures have been taken to conserve these species.

In order to preserve the fish stocks on a large scale and to maintain favourable conditions for their breeding, several lakes such as the Khuvsgul, Uvs and Tsagaan and important parts of some rivers have been categorized as protected areas.

At present there are cases of illegal fishing, an activity that employs the use of harmful methods. This has especially posed threats to taimen (Hucho taimen) and Siberian whitefish stocks in lakes.

In Naiman Lake in the Uvurkhangai Province of Central Mongolia, 25 000 and 50 000 fry of the omul (Coregonus autumnalis) and peled whitefish (Coregonus peled) were stocked in 1978 and 1979, respectively. Between 1983 and 1986, around 10 million omul fry were imported from a fish hatchery in the former USSR and introduced successfully into a group of lakes in Bayan Ulgi Province in Western Mongolia. In 1986, millions of Baikal omul fry from the former USSR were also introduced into Lake Tsagaan in Khuvsgul Province.

Between 1991 and 1995, research into propagation and conservation of taimen and Siberian grayling (Thymallus arcticus) was conducted in the lakes of the Darkhad Depression.

3.4 Development of fishing industry in Mongolia

Large scale fisheries in Mongolia started in the 1950s and targeted lakes Buir (located in the far eastern edge of Mongolia), Ugii Nuur (central Mongolia), and Tsagaan Nuur (northern Mongolia).

The confirmed annual catches from these three lakes peaked at 779.1 tonnes in 1959. Afterwards, partly due to overfishing, the catches never exceeded 400 tonnes, and until the 1990s fish catches from all water bodies in Mongolia ranged from 120 to 200 tonnes per year.

Fish are captured seasonally as during the cold season they can be preserved by freezing under the prevailing very low temperatures. This makes possible their transport to markets. During the warm period of the year fish cannot be preserved as yet, hence there is no fishing and fishermen have only seasonal jobs. The lack of preservation possibilities during the warm season interrupts the supply of fish to markets.

Due to the collapse of the system of centrally planned economy in 1990, fisheries and other economic sectors became disorganized and lost their previous operational efficiencies. As a result there has been a sharp reduction in catches.

Traditionally, in Mongolia main food policies center on agriculture, especially on livestock production. However, demand for fish products is rising not only because of the presence of the resident foreigners and some 10 000 tourists visiting Mongolia every year, but also because Mongolians are demanding a greater variety of food. Thus there is an urgent need for the restoration and further development of fisheries in Mongolia, a landlocked country with no access to ocean fishery resources.

As the natural resources in lakes and rivers are limited and easily overexploited there is a need to develop fishery as a new resource of food. More attention has to be paid to the aquaculture potential of the country, as well as to introducing better preservation and processing methods of fish produced through capture fisheries. Better control and management of natural fishery resources is essential for protection of the fish stocks so that they can be harvested at a sustainable level.

In order to restore and strengthen national capacity in fishery management and development in Mongolia the following priority areas have been identified:


Dulmaa, A. 1999. Fish and fisheries in Mongolia. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper. No. 385: 187-236. FAO, Rome.

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