Coal v Water

Water is the basis of life everywhere, but few things drive that fact home like visiting the arid western and northern parts of China, where grasslands are turning into desert, wells are emptying and rivers are running dry because of lack of water. Water availability per capita is among the lowest in the world.

The dilemma facing the local governments of the region is that these arid areas hold most of China’s remaining coal resources, but mining and using that coal uses water. A lot of it. However, China’s coal companies want to develop massive coal mining and utilization complexes in these areas, known as coal bases, each of which can use more water than several million urban dwellers.

Developing this water thirsty industry could endanger the water supply to the Yellow River, leave thousands of farmers unable to grow crops, and prevent these areas from developing modern, urbanized economies, as their water resources would be depleted virtually forever.

Greenpeace’s research and field work has drawn attention to the major water impacts and risks of China’s planned coal expansion. You can experience some of the things that we have seen on the field by watching this video:

There are already signs that China’s coal consumption is slowing down with rapid development of renewable energy and the demand for energy intensive products like concrete and steel saturating. The devastating local impacts of the coal industry show why it is urgent to move away from coal, in China and elsewhere. 

Background information on the video

Yellow River’s three important tributaries under coal threat:

In 2013, we investigated three tributaries of the Yellow River located in the Erdos City of Inner Mongolia and Yulin City of Shaanxi Province. This region is a fragile and important water resource region for the Yellow River, but regardless this region needs to supply water for a giant coal base expansion. 

In our field investigations, we have seen many old temples along the river course. These temples were built by local people to pray for water and harvest. But now, these temples are bearing witness of how the rivers are being destroyed.

Coal industry destroys ground water:

Ground water is an important water source for the rivers. In one of the tributaries, years of coal mining has destroyed the land, and result in the decline of ground water. Dozens of natural wells in this region went dry. These wells supply water for the river. As a result, there is less and less water supply for the river.

Coal industry destroys the river bed:

Since there is less water in the river bed, some coal plants are taking advantage of this and build the plant in the river bed. Meanwhile, in order to save costs, waste dust is directly left in the river bed. These activities narrowed the river bed, and destroyed the important water channel. 

Coal industry pollution:

Water pollution is also one of the ways that the coal industry threatens the river. Take Jinjie Coal Industry Park in Yulin city as an example. This coal industry park is just next to one of the Yellow River main tributaries, with a distance of less than 5km. Colorful waste water from this industry park goes directly to the natural water course, and finally meets the river. Through testing, over 150 kinds of hazardous components including 2,4 – dichlorophenol, naphthalene, and chloroform were identified in the wastewater.

Despite the water crisis, the coal expansion in this region is now still on fire. This will bring more pressure on the Yellow River tributaries, and endanger an important water supply for the Yellow River. It’s time that the Chinese government issues clear regulations and exercises strict enforcement on western coal expansion

View the full "Thirsty Coal" feature here for more information.

Image: A dry riverbed outside the Jinjie Industrial Park. Large-scale industrial development and the resulting over-extraction of groundwater have caused the environment to deteriorate. Surface desertification is very obvious. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

Deng Ping is a Climate & Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace China.