Ask anyone in Mongolia what water means to them, and you are likely to hear “supreme treasure” or “blue gold.” The government has referred to water even as “priceless wealth.” Water has significant cultural and economic value in Mongolia, yet the common perception of the country’s water resources is limited to rivers and lakes. It is groundwater that is the linchpin of Mongolia’s economy, and yet it is at risk from depletion and degradation.
If groundwater availability were to be compromised, it could severely affect the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
That groundwater is by its very nature hidden from view creates significant challenges for ensuring sustainable use. Monitoring of groundwater levels and quality is achieved by collecting water samples from a network of wells all over the country on a regular basis, and analyzing the resulting data to identify trends, anomalies, and generally assess the overall status of the aquifers underground.
In practical terms, this means that information critical for water resources planning is not available to those who need it for monitoring and analysis.
Together these factors have resulted in a poor understanding of groundwater availability and compromised the country’s ability to make informed decisions about the resource and dependent activities. This is especially critical because significant gaps between water supply and demand are projected to manifest in less than a decade in two economically crucial regions: Ulaanbaatar, the capital city; and the southern Gobi region, the mining hub. Both regions are dependent on groundwater resources for sustained growth. The collection, analysis, and accessibility of robust data on groundwater resources has therefore become a top priority for both the water sector and Mongolia’s national development program.
Groundwater monitoring dashboard – Innovative analyses
To address this challenge, 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG), a public-private multi-donor trust fund, hosted by the World Bank Group, has collaborated with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) and the Water Authority, the government implementing agency, to develop an interactive groundwater monitoring digital dashboard – a first-of-its-kind in Mongolia. The online tool enables the analysis and visualization of groundwater monitoring data to support the implementation of sustainable water allocation strategies and inclusive participation in water governance.
Developers employed artificial intelligence and machine learning to “teach” the program how to model the interactions of the different variables and calculate their impact on groundwater levels. Using the dashboard, users can view the historical water level trend in conjunction with predicted changes according to a number of independent variables, such as air temperature, precipitation, runoff, and abstraction. The dashboard can conduct five different types of analyses: (1) single well analysis, (2) single well deep dive analysis, (3) multiple well analysis, (4) anomaly detection, and (5) prediction.
The previous groundwater monitoring system could not detect when erroneous data – the result of errors in original measurement or data entry – were entered into the system, which could distort the resulting analysis. The new system uses statistical methods to identify sudden changes in groundwater levels, which could be categorized as anomalous readings. With the help of this new function, water managers can identify and correct false data entries.
Monitoring is vitally important as it reveals how hydrogeological systems work and supports the development and implementation of groundwater management plans. Without monitoring, the safety and sustainability of water resources cannot be guaranteed. However, to realize its potential, monitoring data must be verified and then displayed in a way that is accessible to the wide range of stakeholders involved in water resources planning, from policymakers to budget holders to project managers.
The dashboard makes this possible. Based on the criteria requested by the user, the dashboard is capable of producing a range of data visualizations. Various search filters enable users to narrow down and compare results based on specific parameters such as provinces, watersheds, wells, water and weather, and to configure prediction timeframes of up to six months.
Secure access for technical analysis
To comply with the location confidentiality regulations, the project collaborated with government officials and the Water Authority and agreed to share anonymized data. The dashboard allows for three levels of access – Administrators, River Basin Authorities, and the Public – to ensure that information is widely accessible, while allowing authorized and technical users to view the data they need.
Mongolia prioritizes digital governance
By making the groundwater data accessible, water users and authorities are better equipped to anticipate conflicts in resource use, control water abstraction without restricting industry’s activities, plan water allocation sustainably, and implement management strategies based on the actual available groundwater resources. In 2021, the MET highlighted the groundwater monitoring dashboard as one of their main achievements of the year. Currently, the Water Authority is operating the dashboard and expanding it with additional groundwater data to replicate the approach nationwide.
Open Data at the World Bank
The World Bank has long been a proponent of open access to important data. For the past decade, the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has provided free, open access to the Bank’s development data and supported countries to launch their own data initiatives. The World Bank Water Data Portal was launched in 2020 to offer a global resource for all water-related open data that enables evidence-based operations. For the first time ever, a curated list of water data from the World Bank and other sources is now available in one place.
The world needs reliable, accurate, and wide-ranging data so that researchers can generate new insights, policymakers can make decisions based on evidence, and citizens can call for action. In Mongolia, the groundwater monitoring dashboard makes an important contribution toward this global goal – not only by making it possible to “see” groundwater, but ensuring it is visible to everyone.