The push for renewable energy has driven a global hydroelectric dam-building boom that has already displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and has had large but unquantified ecological impacts. To better understand the impacts of dam-building, research is needed to integrate direct environmental effects, indirect effects of how dams change the ways people interact with their environment, and the interactions between these two effects. With its first large dam under construction and another planned, Mongolia's Selenge River watershed represents an excellent study site for such an investigation. It is also a compelling site because Northern Mongolia's shifting precipitation patterns and rising air temperatures (which have warmed three times faster than the global average), have made traditional herding a more difficult and economically risky livelihood. Some herders have responded by intensifying their use of other natural resources, including fish. By combining research methods from the social and environmental sciences, and by using high-technology tools as well as field work, 18 U.S. students, working with scientists/mentors from several U.S. institutions and from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, will develop an integrated set of approaches for examining social and ecological dynamics of hydroelectric development. This project will also give U.S. students hands-on experience in working across cultures and in a team-based approach to large complex projects.
This IRES project enables students to use multiple approaches to evaluate the impact of dams on the Selenge River's human and natural systems. Among the projects they will undertake are: 1) surveying for critically endangered fish species using analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA) shed by fish in the water; 2) estimating the abundance of Taimen, the world's largest salmonid, using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) as a rapid and unobtrusive visual survey platform; 3) conducting swimming performance trials to forecast fishes' ability to utilize fish ladders designed to mitigate dam impacts; 4) interviewing community elders to gauge rates of community change in the past and since dam construction started; 5) interviewing young villagers to understand how dam-building and other factors influence their desire to leave their villages for urban area; and 6) assessing the impacts of possible dam-caused fish declines on foreign sport fisherman (who bring valuable foreign currency to the region) and on Mongolians who increasingly depend on fish for food.