The gushing, coffee-coloured waters of the Yellow River means a lot to the people of China. Ancient Chinese dynasties made their home in the fertile plains of the river basin, so it's little surprise the river has come to be known as the "cradle of Chinese civilization" or the "Mother River". Which makes the current disaster unfurling only more tragic, as 16 new coal power bases set to threaten a river that's already been abused by decades of over-use and pollution.
One of the most visible crises caused by these new coal power bases is an ever drier Yellow River, a river considered by the Chinese people as a totem of their culture. The Yellow River, already challenged by water grabbing and pollution, will be further drained by five coal bases. These five coal bases, proven to contain 41% of the country's total coal reserves, are all located on the upper stream of the river. These "big five" are all also heavy consumers of water, sucking the Yellow River's tributaries up and causing them to run dry more frequently, and cutting off water that would otherwise feed into the Yellow River.
Take the coal-rich Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region as an example. Statistics have shown that in the area between 2001 and 2005, coal mines overconsumed almost 800 million m3 of water from the Yellow River each year, about 25% over the approved quota; and between 2003 and 2006 a total of 16 pre-warning were issued, predicting that the Yellow River would run dry within Ningxia and Inner Mongolia's territory.
If these five coal power bases are constructed as stipulated by the 12th Five-Year Plan, the residents living on the arid Yellow River basin will be deprived of even more of their water rights. Even their drinking water supply will be put to risk, as the Yellow River runs dry with increased frequency.
Coal bases along the Yellow River Basin also dump significant amounts of waste into the river's tributary system. Every year, the five main coal-power bases located on the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River discharge more than 80 million tons of waste, which ultimately flows into the Yellow River. This causes direct economic losses every year of between RMB11.5 billion and RMB15.6 billion 9. Furthermore, it poses a threat to drinking water safety for millions of people living along the Yellow River – water cutoffs have already happened in several cities due to serious pollution incidents.
In fact, coal mining, transport, processing, and use of coal all produce large amounts of waste water and industrial waste, which in China is often directly dumped into rivers, causing serious surface water pollution and leaving little or no clean water for local people to use for agriculture or daily use.