Magazine / July 2013

The movement to stop Shenhua from pumping water

Yang Yuanxiang of Adaohai number three worries about how he will plant if the water table continues to drop.

Yang Yuanxiang of Adaohai number three worries about how he will plant if the water table continues to drop.

© Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

The section of grassland employed as a water source for the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project has a 'high perimeter, low basin' topography. 

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Both the groundwater and rainfall collects in the heart of the basin. In the past it was one of the most abundant groundwater resources in the Ordos. Which explains why such a water-intensive project would go to all the effort to build a 100km pipe, in order to extract this groundwater from the grassland.

In 2005, farmers and herders from the Haole Baoji mixed pastoral-agricultural region jointly sent the Ordos Wushen Banner government a petition, along with open letters. They outlined their concerns regarding the vast amounts of groundwater the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project was extracting. In their petition, the farmers and herders stated their biggest worry: "this will cause incalculable damage to our production and way of life. It is already threatening our survival and the survival of our children's generation."

They also made their appeal very clear: "[The Shenhua coal-to-liquid project] must stop its illegal extraction of water resources."

The local government replied to the people in a letter stating: "water is the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project's key controlled foundation project. It is a major, yearlong task with a tight time schedule. It also directly benefits the people of the water source area … It is everyone's responsibility and duty to fully support national key projects and ensure their smooth implementation."

The letter also made mention that the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region Ordos Wuzhen Banner government has invested in this project in order to help lift local farmers and herders out of poverty. In the government's version of the story, information regarding the project had not been properly disseminated during the time of the land requisition. Thus the local people were not fully aware of the importance of this project and related policies and legislation, and this had affected social stability.

However, from Wuzhu Yunle's point of view, this is not simply a case of "poor publicity". He tells us, "this year, Shenhua gave everyone 8,000 RMB in compensation. But no matter what amount they offer it can't make up for the loss of our old way of life. The government has asked us to relocate, but I'm not willing to leave my grasslands. I don't know my way around a city."


This land belongs to Tang Bai of Adaohai number four. The stone marker indicates land that was once farmed. Disappearing groundwater means there is no water to irrigate. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

The farmers and herders don't want to leave these grasslands, but what choice do they have when the project is slowly sucking up all the precious water in the area? The grasslands, trees, cattle, sheep, the crops crops, and even the farmers and herders themselves, along with their future generations, will not be able to survive.

Not far from the home of herder Hushan is the project's No. 8 water pumping station, which has now been in operation for more than 10 years. Hushan points out a spot near the front door of his house where water used to gush up to two meters in height. Now not only has his well dried up, not even one blade of grass grows here. In a photo taken more than 10 years ago from his home's doorway, you can clearly see the gushing well, lush vegetation, and children playing in the water.

Grasslands ten years ago

In this photo taken more than ten years ago, villagers are pictured alongside an artesian well on the Haole Baoji mixed pastoral-agricultural region. From this we can see how vegetation was once lush.

Grasslands today

This is the same well today. After the Shenhua coal-to-liquid project began extracting water, this area quickly turned completely dry. The surrounding grasslands have also experienced desertification.

"This place was once really beautiful. Now, the trees, cattle and sheep are all dying. We are also suffering. And it's not simply affecting a few of us," he says.

Over the past 10 years, the farmers and herders have worked hard, both sending appeals and going in person to Beijing countless times to petition authorities there. But not once have they have managed to secure their long-desired solution. Yet they have never given up hope that Shenhua will one day stop pumping groundwater - water that is so crucial to their survival.