Magazine / July 2013

'Thirsty coal' leads to severe land degradation

The Shenhua coal-to-liquid project discharges creamy, white sewage directly into streams.

The Shenhua coal-to-liquid project discharges creamy, white sewage directly into streams.

© Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

In March 2003, the farmers and herders began to witness the systemic destruction of their grasslands due to groundwater extraction by the Shenhua Corporation. Between March and September, 22 wells were dug in their living area. 

VIEW SLIDESHOW Witness the environmental devestation

Without any advance notification, the Haole Baoji pastoral-agricultural region was designated the "Shenhua coal-to-liquid project: Wushenzhao water source" by the Wushen Banner government.

Since then, locals have grown increasingly concerned about whether the project will affect their livelihoods and local environment. With the ongoing expansion of the project, they fear that one day their land will no longer be habitable, and that the loss of their land is unavoidable.

Shenhua coal plant

The Shenhua coal-to-liquid and chemical project. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

With the local population repeatedly voicing their concern regarding the project's groundwater extraction, the Wushen Banner government finally came out with the following guarantees, to come into effect by 2007, after the water extraction engineering project is in full operation: "stored drinking water would not be affected", "the burden on farming and grazing would not increase", and "the incomes of farmers and herders incomes would not be any less than of those in neighboring areas."

And while these promises turned out to be nothing but lip service, at the time farmers and herders had little choice but to stand aside and watch the Shenhua company decimate their living environment – destruction that has lasted over 10 years:

2003: 22 wells were dug deep into the grasslands;

2005: Shenhua began to install water pipes 100km away from the coal liquefaction plant;

2006: Groundwater extraction began, with the rate of extraction reaching 14.4 million tons per year;

2007: Signs of grassland degradation begin to show.

Wuzhu Yunle tells us that since 2007, the local groundwater level has fallen dozens of meters, and in some places more than 100m. In the past you could simply dig and find water. In some places one need only dig two or three meters. But now locals must dig extremely deep just to draw a tiny amount of water.

As groundwater levels fall, a decline in the volume of groundwater has caused desertification of the grasslands. And with the loss of vegetation, rivers retreat and run dry, and fixed dunes begin to shift. This has spelled doom for the local people and their traditional farming and herding lifestyles.

Willow trees

20-year-old willows and poplars in the number three Adaohai village started to die only two years after Shenhua started drilling wells and extracting water here. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo


Villager Li Ju watches in pain as one tree after another dies. © Greenpeace / Qiu Bo

60-year-old Farmer Li tells us, "In the old days we simply took a shovel, dug a little and there was water. Now look at that tree, and the willow - both are dead. Before this sea of sand, the water was about a meter or so deep. You could even swim in it. Now it's turned into an ocean of dryness." Li feels helpless in the face of a severe shortage of water, water that is needed to irrigate her crops. She says she lives in the worst affected area.

Wuzhu Yunle adds: "There's no bigger project in existence that could do more damage to us. Do the lives of the people mean nothing? Isn't there another way to make money? After the water is gone, how can you still make money?"