China's Thirst For Coal Could Soon Land It In A Water Shortage

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Photo: Greenpeace

As China continues to grow, so too do its energy demands. A report by Greenpeace released this month titled “Thirsty Coal: A Water Crisis Exacerbated By China’s New Mega Coal Power Bases”, reveals some of the more disheartening effects of the Chinese economic phenomena.  Currently, China depends on coal for about 70% of its energy needs. As a result, 16 large coal power plants are planned to be built under China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), in hopes of contributing 2.2 billion tons of coal output for 2015 (56% of China’s total annual output).

Coal power production being a water intensive operation, this will create a need for an estimated 9.975 billion cubic meters of water in 2015. For comparison, that’s about one-sixth of the total volume of water within China’s Yellow River each year. 

In daily amounts, the average water demand from this industry will be 27.33 million cubic meters, nine times the amount of Beijing’s 2012 daily water supply and one-fifth of China’s 2009 daily national consumption. The plants, most being built in the Western region of China, will exceed the current industrial capacity for water in the region. To give you an idea of the lack of water for this type of expansionary project, Inner Mongolia, which possesses 26% of China’s coal reserves, has only 1.6% of China’s water. Thus, water will have to be taken form other sources, leading to battles over the resource. 

The water supplies of farmers, urban residential areas, and other sources liker groundwater beneath wetlands, will likely be tapped into (which destroys wetlands, degrades the soil, reduces crop yields, and ultimately, turns the land into a desert). So too will the Yellow River.

Statistics in the Greenpeace report explain that from 2001 to 2005, coal mines used almost 800 million cubic meters of water more than their quota allowed, a 25% “overconsumption.” Besides depleting water sources, coal plants also pollute them. Five coal power bases located in the upper and middle Yellow River area empty more than 80 million tons of waste into the environment, and eventually into the Yellow River, each year.  

For years, academics and scientists have been warning of the globe’s rapidly decreasing water supplies. While most people are already quite familiar with the other environmental effects of coal, the water issue doesn’t seem to get much play. Maybe it should.

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