Water pollution in China

Image: The Shenhua coal-to-liquid project illegally discharges highly concentrated industrial wastewater in the hills around its site, in the Ordos grasslands.

Energy lies at the foundation for development, but water is necessary for life. 

The two – energy and water - are currently in conflict and this conflict is becoming increasingly apparent in China, and across the globe. Water resources are limited; at present over 20 million people live in countries facing severe water shortages. At the same time, water consumption has spiked around the globe. By 2035 we will be consuming twice the amount of water we did two years ago; that’s 1.35 billion cubic metres compared to 660 million in 2010. 

Take China, for example, where conflicting water and energy needs typically poses a problem. Accompanying China’s industrialization has been a rapid increase in the consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal consumption. Currently coal consumption makes up 70% of all energy consumption. The auto industry in China mainly relies on coal and in turn coal consumption relies on water. 

China is one of many countries facing water scarcity. Water per capita in China is only about one quarter of the international average and the water crisis that results from energy consumption is becoming increasingly critical.

In early 2012, the geographical research team of the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a report emphasising the unsustainability of current levels of water consumption in the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shanxi and Ningxia. And that by 2015, the Chinese coal and electricity industry will need about 99.75 million cubic metres of water.

Water shortages in China

Yang Yuanxiang, next to a water well. He worries about how he will continue farming the land if the groundwater levels continue to drop. Haolebaoji, Ordos, Inner Mongolia. 

In addition to this report, there have been many warning signs coming from all corners of China; the river has run dry in Yulin prefecture in Shanxi and in Ordos (a region of inner Mongolia) coal and oil have brought about dramatic declines in the local water level, which is affecting people's livelihoods. 

Greenpeace entered the field to conduct interviews and carry out research in order to better understand the situation. Using the Yellow River Valley as a key example, our campaigners witnessed how the coal industry is already struggling to locate enough water to plunder. The coal industry and agricultural sector have begun to compete for precious water sources and there are already cases where construction time is being affected due to insufficient water resources. 

We are currently experiencing the consequences of China's water and energy nexus problem, and the situation is unstable and is constantly changing. Even with efforts to increase awareness about the importance of water, some areas of China are continuing to expand their coal industries.

Water testing

A Greenpeace investigator takes samples of waste water discharged by the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project into a sand bank where it is left to seep into the ground and evaporate.

In 2005, China’s coal consumption was about 21 million tonnes. In 2011, it reached 36.6 million tonnes, accounting for about half of the global consumption. And it is estimated that by 2015 the nation will reach 40 million tonnes.

This increase in production has not only affected important water reserves in the grasslands, rivers and neighbouring areas but has also contributed to serious levels of pollution and excessive consumption. The economy and people's livelihoods cannot dispense with either water or energy, and later generations will pay the price when fossil fuels become scarce and they are forced to reconsider the wisdom of the development model of prior generations.

Energy comes in many forms; how much should we rely on coal and how much should we rely on renewable energy? With fast paced development, the scale of the problem and regional differences, these are difficult questions to ask but only by exploring the answers do we have a chance to find solutions. 

On the other hand, there is a serious lack of options when it comes to increasing water supplies! We hope that in future there will be more collaboration between energy experts and water experts. Only when these two disciplines work together to find a new development path for China will we find a way to avoid a water crisis.