[Investigate] How Thirsty is Coal?

Cattle graze near the Baiyinhua No. 1 open-cast coal mine in West Ujimqin Banner of Xilin Gol, Inner Mongolia.

Cattle graze near the Baiyinhua No. 1 open-cast coal mine in West Ujimqin Banner of Xilin Gol, Inner Mongolia.

Water is our most precious resource, but China’s big plans to build 16 coal bases mostly in the north and west of the country will drain an already drought-ridden region dry. Grasslands will turn to dust, rivers will run dry, farmers and herdsmen will lose their livelihoods. It’s going to be a tricky campaign to persuade governments to scale down their plans.

Thirsty Coal


When we released our report, Thirsty Coal, in August, the media had lots of demanding questions. We have selected some of these below along with our answers to give you are more rounded picture of the coal-base water crisis.

How much do these coal power bases matter to China?

They matter a lot. They will provide one third of China’s coal-fired power capacity. But so does water and so does our environment. There are other ways to generate energy – such as wind and solar.

What else could China do instead to develop these areas?

These areas are indeed less developed, but the way to develop them is not through sacrificing their environment and draining their lifelines. These areas have huge potential to develop alternative energy (it’s all in our China Wind Power Outlook reports). Renewable energy has the potential to become a green GDP driver.

Is there a way to solve the water shortage problem without moving the coal bases away, for example, water-diversion projects?

No. Some of these projects cannot sustainably be carried out in these areas. The most important thing is to check and respect natural limits in water resources, and adjust the scale of these bases.

So if everything goes as planned, what will happen to these areas in five years’ time?

We’ve already seen terrible things happening to the environment and people living in these areas (destruction of Wulagai Wetland, herders relocated, etc.), due to the unchecked development of coal power bases.

It’s clear that these problems will only worsen if the expansion goes as planned, or beyond the plan driven by even higher local development ambition.

How much greenhouse emissions will come from these coal power bases?

An excellent question to ask. We can’t give any specific figure yet, but one can tell the carbon emission from this plan will be huge.

This coal expansion clearly goes against the water resource regulation scheme. Is that scheme just a lip service?

The scheme, a document issued at the State Council level, is a great step forward in terms of protecting China’s waters. It reflects there is no lack of political will at central level. But there is a lot of work to do to ensure policy makers at different fronts are supporting this scheme. Some departments will need to give in to the overarching vision, and it takes time and effort.

Some provinces in your report are not in the west. How would water demand be a problem for provinces such as Anhui and Guizhou?

Some of these bases have only been developed for a short period of time and the water problem hasn’t appeared yet. The potential of the eastern and central bases will soon be exhausted, so it’s worthwhile to look at those that will be developed and in use for a long time.