Solving ground water contamination with community science in Inner Mongolia

20 February 2018

Dr Uchralt led a unique community science project bringing together water scientists and herders in Inner Mongolia as citizen scientists and discover a cheap, low-tech solution to the problem of ground water contamination.

The project has been part of Tessa Morris-Suzuki's ARC Laureate Project 'Survival Politics'.

Ground water in Mongolia can have high levels of nitrate, fluoride, and also arsenic. The nitrate content has come about naturally as a result of the long history of nomadic animal herding: the dung and urine of the animals kept by herders over thousands of years seeped into the soil causing these elements to be present.

This did not manifest as a problem until relatively recently. Along with the privatisation of the land use system in the 1990s, the way land is owned and used changed in Inner Mongolia. Instead of sharing rivers and streams for livestock and domestic use, herders now own defined parcels of land. In practice this means that many herders don't have access to rivers as they once did, making wells for domestic and livestock use now commonplace.

Once the effects of nitrate fluoride and arsenic on population health are not felt it is often too late to do anything about them. Effects of over exposure to fluoride include interference with bone and dental development; nitrate exposure can cause adversely affect the blood's ability to carry oxygen to tissue. Arsenic poisoning through prolonged exposure in drinking water has many detrimental effects, from gastrointestinal upset to cancer and heart disease.This is why identifying wells with higher levels of contamination is so important.

Uchralt's research is part of Tessa Morris-Suzuki's Laureate project, Informal Life Politics.

Morris-Suzuki's conceives this 'as the way that people engage in self-help, non-governmental forms of political action in the face of threats to their life, livelihood or cultural survival.'

"The actions of these groups are 'political', but political in an unfamiliar way: they are 'survival politics'," she says. "They involve people in activities that are outside the limits of their everyday social roles. Often, quietly, they shake up the social order by impelling people to speak up and to take on tasks that they would not normally be expected to perform. Here, people take politics into their own hands."

Uchralt was inspired by Morris-Suzuki in Japan, at Towa Village, Fuskushima, where farmers are working alongside scientists as citizen scientists to overcome the problem of nuclear contamination in local food production. Uchralt wondered if there was anything like that going on in Inner Mongolia, the place of his birth. He came into contact with some Japanese water scientists who had worked with a herders in Inner Mongolia to identify and measure contamination levels in ground water.

A social scientist by training, Uchralt made contact and established a relationship with a community of herders who wished to test the ground water quality in their wells, and connected them with water specialists in Japan.

He sees himself as the middle-man, a kind of activist-researcher, making connections between academic activity and problems in the community. "In Europe there are facilities called 'science shops' that bring these worlds together to find workable solutions in collaborative ways," he explains

Inner Mongolia is a very different proposition to a 'science shop' in a European city.

Uchralt explains: "It's not easy to get to where the herders are. We rely on local collaborators, especially once we reach the villages. Traditionally Mongolian people don't dig wells or drink that water. Nomads traditionally move at least four times a year and drink snow in winter and river water in summer. Because the land-use system has totally changed in recent years; now each household is allocated a piece of land. They have to find water sources in their own land."

The Japanese scientists knew of a project in Sri Lanka where the problem of high fluoride levels in ground water was solved by using bone char from chicken bones. "In Inner Mongolia there are a lot of sheep so we thought it might work to use their bones. We tested the idea back in the lab in Japan, and made lamb bone char," says Uchralt.

The scientists were able to calculate how many bones were needed to purify per litre of water, how long to leave it, and the optimal temperature at which the bones have to be burned so that it doesn't badly affect the taste of the water.

Using bone char has the huge advantage of being inexpensive and using readily available materials.

"Another solution to the contamination is sharing water. Because we have extensive data about all the wells we knew which could be shared."

The next stage of the research problem is to translate the data and knowledge to action. Uchralt recognises that more work needs to be done to share the knowledge with wider communities in Inner Mongolia about the meaning of the research, the data and the solution.

"There was a Chinese artist who produced a children's book in Inner Mongolia to communicate this problem to the community. I think this is a great idea. As a community science project, our goal is not only serve some scientific presentation and a conference or a paper, but also solve the community's problem." says Uchralt.

Videos of his research adventures can be viewed on the Survival Politics ARC Laureate site

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team