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Hunger for coal spurs water shortages

Chinese coal plans raise concerns for environmentalists

China is already the biggest producer and consumer of coal in the world China is already the biggest producer and consumer of coal in the world
  • ucanews.com reporter, Beijing
  • China
  • August 28, 2012
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Much has been made of China’s voracious appetite for raw materials and the environmental fallout that could ensue. But campaigners and researchers are warning the country's thirst for water poses a much more tangible and immediate problem.

Nearly 10 billion cubic meters of water will be consumed if 16 newly proposed coal mines and plants go ahead in the north and west of China in places such as Gansu, an undeveloped province in the north, and Xinjiang further west and home to the country’s two largest deserts.

These regions are “already suffering from desertification and other severe environmental problems,” warned Greenpeace researcher Sun Qingwei.

Greenpeace China estimates that the amount of water required to keep these proposed projects operating is equal to a quarter of the total annual volume of the Yellow River, the sixth-longest in the world.

“It leads to large-scale land deterioration which not only affects livelihoods and threatens agricultural production and food safety but also damages the basis for sustainable economic development,” said Sun.

Although the direct fallout of this massive consumption of the dirtiest fossil fuel across the world’s most populated nation remains to be seen, evidence of China’s water problems is already piling up.

In Bameng diocese in Inner Mongolia, which has seen rapid recent development of its coal industry and now ranks as the second-biggest producer in China, a local priest says the water table is plummeting.

“We dug 30 meters to get clean water 30 years ago,” said the priest, who asked not to be named. “We now have to dig 90 meters, and even more in some other places.”

He says the reason behind this unfolding environmental disaster is obvious: high-polluting, water-hungry heavy industry.

In neighboring Shanxi, the biggest coal-producing province in China and believed to hold one third of all deposits in the country, Michael, a retired engineer in his 70s, says the availability of water is also falling.

“Water supply becomes tight when there is a drought,” says the engineer, who lives in Taiyuan diocese that includes the provincial capital of the same name. “People have to queue up at the well for water.”

The central government has proposed drawing water from southern stretches of the Yangtze River where demand is currently lower. But that is just a stop-gap measure, critics warn, especially if the proposed new coal projects go ahead.

China is already the largest coal producer and consumer in the world, with up to 70 percent of electricity produced by coal-fired plants compared to an average of just 30 percent in the rest of the world. As such, China is by far the biggest producer of carbon dioxide on the planet.

In a jointly published report, Greenpeace China and the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources of the Chinese Academy of Science recently urged the government to implement stricter controls on water resources at coal plants and suggested a rethink on where these should be built.

In other words, campaign groups are urging Beijing to consider factors beyond pure, short-term economics to protect the environment, and longer term economic interests.

“[China’s] over-reliance on coal is due to the lack of crude oil and an unprivileged situation in the international oil market,” said Greenpeace’s Sun. “But the price of coal does not reflect the high cost of the coal-mining industry which has long neglected mining safety and environmental protection.”

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