Coal impacts on water

Background - 21 March, 2014
Coal is one of the most-water intensive methods of generating electricity. A typical coal plant withdraws enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every three and a half minutes. The International Energy Agency says that global water consumption for power generation and fuel production is expected to more than double from 66 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2010, to 135 bcm by 2035. Coal accounts for 50% of this growth.

Despite the looming water scarcity crisis, today there are more than 1200 new coal plants proposed around the world. Much of proposed coal expansion is in water stressed regions – regions which already have limited available water for sanitation, health and livelihoods.

Turkey, Ogulhan-Kahramanmaras. Local people have argued the plants have been responsible for serious health effects and the ash produced dries up rivers and agricultural lands in the locality. ©Umut Vedat/Greenpeace

Today, more than 2 billion people live in countries with absolute water scarcity. The number is expected to rise to 4.6 billion by 2080. Already 63% of the population in Brazil, Russia, India and China together are living under medium to severe water stress; this will increase to 80% by 2030 unless strong measures are introduced.

The 'water grab' by the coal industry will inevitably lead to water conflicts between people and environmental needs.

Countries where coal expansion overlaps with water scarcity

Impact 1. Water grabs by coal plants

In China, a coal chemical project in the dry Inner Mongolia region, part of a new mega coal power base, had extracted so much water in 8 years of operation that caused the local water table to drop by up to 100 meters, and the local lake to shrink by 62%. The drastic ecological impacts forced thousands of local residents to become ‘ecological migrants’. This is just the tip of the iceberg - by 2015, China’s current plan of 16 such mega coal power bases will consume 10 billion m3 of water annually, equivalent to 1/6 of Yellow River annual flow.

China, Inner Mongolia, Zhang Dadi, a farmer has a 150-meter deep well that he uses to irrigate his corn field. Last year he planted 20 mu of land, but could only irrigate 15 mu (1 hectare). This year he planted 15 mu but could only irrigate 8 mu. ©Bo Qiu/Greenpeace

 

China, Inner Mongolia. Subsidence caused by lowering of water table from mining. ©Lu Guang/Greenpeace

 

In India, the energy-water conflict is even starker. According to analysis by HSBC and the World Resources Institute, a staggering 79% of new energy capacity will be built in areas that are already water scarce or stressed, but coal is still the energy of choice despite the clear water constraint. A case in point is the plan to build a cluster of 71 coal plants in the highly water stressed Vidarbha region in Central Maharashtra, where there had been over 6,000 documented farmer suicides in the last decade due to lack of water for irrigation.

India, Central Maharashtra. Women collect silt. The Indian government plans to build a cluster of 71 coal plants in this highly water stressed area. Over 6,000 farmer suicides have been documented in the last decade due to lack of water for irrigation. ©Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace

In South Africa, the main utility, Eskom, admits that there is no unallocated water available in the catchments that supply its power stations, and argues that, as it is classified as a strategic water user, “water would have to be given up by other users most notably irrigation farmers”. Moreover, Eskom also argues that their coal plants should be exempt from Minimum Emissions Standards because there isn’t enough water to operate the scrubber. The excess emissions of sulfur and nitrous oxides and mercury from their coal fleet are projected to cause approximately 20000 pre-mature deaths.

South Africa, MNS informal settlement. Community members wait to fill up water containers at a community tap next to the coal washing station. The water is approximately 500 meters from the settlement. ©Mujahid Safodien/Greenpeace

Impact 2: mining pollution driving water scarcity

Coal mining, especially open-cast mining, is responsible for complete environmental destruction, and has huge impacts to local water resources; groundwater needs to be pumped out of the ground, forests needs to be cut down and fertile top soil are removed in order to access the coal; and in the process destroying valuable underground aquefers, streams and rivers. Moreover, bare lands are easily eroded, degrading the water quality and clogging up rivers downstream, leading to increased flooding risks.

Indonesian Borneo, East Kalimantan. Coal mining has caused widespread water pollution in the Makaham River, which flows through rainforests and is home to 147 indigenous freshwater fish species. Land erosion from deforestation and mining has dramatically increased the risk of flooding in the region. From 2010 to 2012, the city of Samarinda has recorded a total of 218 floods and has now acquired the reputation of "Kota Banjir", or flood city. ©Kemai Jufri/Greenpeace

China, Inner Mongolia. The Shengli open-cast coal mine encroaches on the grassland. Ten billion cubic meters of water will be consumed by 16 new coal fired power plants and mines in China in 2015, triggering severe water crises in the country's arid Northwest. ©Lu Guang/Greenpeace

Impact 3: coal ash and slurry: long term hazards to communities

Coal combustion creates millions of tons of solid waste in the form of coal ash and scrubber sludge — the detritus from the machinery which ‘controls’ polluting exhaust. This toxic cocktail sits in “ponds,” often leaching into groundwater. There is no way to clean coal ash up. It is highly hazardous, often containing arsenic, mercury and lead. Living in close proximity to coal ash dumps greatly increases your risk of cancer, heart damage, lung disease and birth defects, among a myriad of other serious illnesses.

USA, North Carolina. Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill. The coal ash leaks from the collapsed unlined coal ash pond into the Dan River. Duke Energy said that 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released. Despite the closing of the plant in 2012, the ash pond remains. Prior to the spill, the pond was already classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “high hazard”. There are 45 high hazard ash ponds in North Carolina alone. ©Jason Miczek/Greenpeace

In China, there are more than 1,400 coal-fired power plants producing enough coal ash to cover Tianenmen Square with three and a half meters per day. Over 375 million tons of it are produced in a year, and like trash, it all must be stored somewhere.

China, Shanxi province. Coal Ash, the solid byproduct of burning coal, is China's largest source of solid waste. After burning, the chemical compounds in coal become far more concentrated in coal ash than in raw coal. Lab tests by Greenpeace found more than 20 different heavy metals and chemicals in the coal ash samples. Ash is carried by wind over long distances, the heavy metals seeps into groundwater as well as rivers, and can easily contaminate the food chain. ©Zhao Gang/Greenpeace.

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