Thirsty new coal bases to trigger “water crisis” in China’s north-west


Guest post by Monica Tan, Greenpeace East Asia

In China’s arid northwest, the state government is planning to build 16 new, water-gobbling, coal power bases by 2015. It is an area rich in coal but scarce in water – per capita water supply is one tenth of the national average – and these new bases are set to trigger a water crisis in an area that is already feeling the strain.

A new Greenpeace report Thirsty Coal
, published today, reveals there simply isn’t enough water to go around. “In this part of the country, even a single drop of water is too precious to be squandered,” says Li Yan, Greenpeace East Asia’s climate and energy campaign manager. "China is basically trading the water rights of millions of people for energy."

Dark smoke from stacks owned by Hemeihongjun Aluminum Electricity Company of the China Power Investment Corporation. On condition of anonymity, an employee of the corporation claims that the corporation has violated regulations by shutting down the dust removal devices and desulfurization devices of this power plant. 04/2012 © Lu Guang/Greenpeace

For a country highly concerned with maintaining social stability, ignoring the environmental impacts of coal mining could prove risky. Last year, Inner Mongolia was marred by social unrest, where “land disputes between miners and Mongol herders became commonplace,” reported the The Economist. With once stunning grasslands turning into barren dustbowls, nomadic herders have no choice but to abandon traditional lifestyles that have long histories and intimate ties to the land. And despite examples of success elsewhere in the country, here local residents may find China’s powerful state-owned power companies, who have direct investments in billion-dollar dam projects, diverting water once destined for grasslands into their thirsty coal-mining bases, a heavy rock to push.

A slag pile and drainage pipe at the Baorixile open-cast coal mine in Hulun Buir, Inner Mongolia. Increasingly Inner Mongolia’s grasslands are being peeled away for the rich coal reserves underneath. 05/2012 © Lu Guang/Greenpeace

The Yimin River used to snake through the southeastern part of the Hulunbuir grassland like a silvery blue thread. That is until the Fortune 500 Company China Huaneng Group, together with Luneng Group, stepped in and dammed the river with the Honghuaerji Reservoir, leaving such a limited volume of water flowing downstream that now, even in flood season, the riverbed is dry. Stocky Mongolian horses no longer graze on verdant green grass, and must instead contend with dust and brown tufts. It is a similar tale with another Chinese SOE, China Power Investment that built the Gaolehan Reservoir, damming up the Gaolehan River and affecting the nearby land. If water is life, these grasslands are the living dead.

A signpost at the Yuejin open-cast coal mine in Xilin Gol, Inner Mongolia. 04/2012 © Lu Guang/Greenpeace

When finished in 2015, these 16 coal power bases, mainly spread across the northern provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Ningxia, will generate over one third of the country’s coal power capacity, and by conservative estimates consume almost 10 billion cubic metres of water. It’s a figure that is likely to eat into water currently allocated to other uses such as farming, urban residential use or for environmental conservation.

"We’re strongly urging the government to carry out a strict and robust assessment of water demand of China’s coal power bases and their overall environmental impact," says Li Yan. "We’re now two years into the [12th] Five-Year Plan, so it’s time to rethink the pros and cons of this westward coal expansion, and acknowledge the profoundly painful heritage it will leave: huge carbon emissions, devastating air pollution and more and more desperate ‘water grabs’ in these already arid provinces."