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China's coal plans will worsen water crisis, warns Greenpeace

China’s development plan for coal power in its western provinces is completely out of kilter with its water resources and will worsen the arid region’s water crisis. That’s the conclusion of “Thirsty Coal: A Water Crisis Exacerbated”, a report by Greenpeace published on August 14.

According to the 12th Five-year National Energy Plan and the 12th Five-year Coal Industry Plan, China will build 14 key coal extraction sites and 16 large-scale coal power bases in the west of the country. By 2015, these extensive coal power bases and their industry chains will have consumed nearly 10 billion cubic metres of water, roughly equivalent to a quarter of the water in the Yellow River. “In other words, every day the country’s 16 large-scale coal power bases consume nine times as much as Beijing’s daily water supply”, said Sun Qingwei, Greenpeace climate and energy project director.

The entire coal-production chain consumes large quantities of water. Mining is particularly extreme because it drains water underground. Most of the planned large-scale coal power bases are in Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Xinjiang, which are arid and semi-arid regions. By the final stage of the 12th Five-year plan, the water needed for coal power in Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Ningxia will approach, or even exceed, the current industrial water usage in those provinces. Moreover, there are explicit conflicts concerning the planning of coal power bases and the water supply of the western region. 

In Inner Mongolia, coal mining has contributed to the destruction of underground water systems, depleted the water table and affected the water supply for agriculture and livestock. It has also perpetuated problems such as the degradation of grasslands, drying up of wetlands, and desertification. Grassland degradation in Inner Mongolia has reached 73.5%.

Greenpeace has recommended an immediate re-evaluation of the water requirements for the coal power bases, and has suggested that coal production be determined by water supply, implying that the layout and scale of the coal power bases be revised. In view of the west’s water resource limitations, this is an urgent necessity.

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer smc.

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