[This article examines China's water-energy nexus, including the rise in
coal production and its demands on an ever shrinking water supply in the
west. Experts call for greater water conservation measures, since the
development of alternative energy sources has thus far failed to curtail
an increase in fossil fuels development.]
China's Looming Conflict Between Energy and Water
By Christina Larson
30 April 2012
In its quest to find new sources of energy, China is increasingly
looking to its western provinces. But the nation's push to develop
fossil fuel and alternative sources has so far ignored a basic fact ï¿½
western China simply lacks the water resources needed to support major
new energy development.
If you were to fly over the great continental expanse of China at night,
you would find clusters of bright lights hugging near the eastern coast
ï¿½ sprawling, populous cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai,
Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. But the farthest west you travel, the fewer
such illuminated megalopolises you would encounter. To be sure, China
also has large cities in its interior, but they are fewer and farther
between. Rather like the United States, China's major centers of
population and industry are concentrated near its eastern seaboard. So,
too, are its energy needs.
Yet ironically, China's great and untapped opportunities for developing
both traditional fossil fuels and alternative energy lie primarily in
its western hinterlands. For instance, the sparsely populated,
sun-drenched northwestern province of Gansu is fast becoming a hub of
China's efforts to develop domestic wind and solar energy. Likewise, as
eastern coal reserves are gradually depleted, new mining operations are
under development in the western provinces of Inner Mongolia, Qinghai,
Ningxia, Xinjiang, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu. But they also lie far
from where most of the energy will eventually be consumed ï¿½ and that's
Transporting coal from western mines over long distances ï¿½ via railroad
or truck, or by barges drifting down the Yangtze River ï¿½ is a costly,
troublesome undertaking; freight charges can add more than 50 percent to
the cost of coal. In adverse weather conditions, shipment becomes a
precarious obstacle. When a 2008 blizzard blanketed southeastern China
in snow and shut down major rail lines, the lights went off in several
southeastern cities to which coal shipments were delayed. When last
summer's severe drought grounded barge traffic on the lower Yangtze, the
largest utility company in downstream Shanghai announced that nearby
factories would face rotating blackouts (despite its sheen of modernity,
even mainland China's wealthiest city is not immune to power failure).
The country's top leaders have made provisions for both increasing
overall coal production and easing the coal-transportation bottleneck.
The most recent Five-Year Plan, the central government's primary
planning document, calls for significantly increasing coal production,
which will be achieved by developing and expanding 14 large
"coal-industry bases" across western China; these bases will include
facilities for coal mining, petrochemical processing, and coal-fired
Moreover, the plans call for installing high-voltage, cross-country
transmission lines. Instead of shipping all that coal in rumbling rail
cars, at least a portion of it would be converted to power on site, and
the electricity then transmitted by cable to power-hungry eastern cities
like Shanghai. But the environmental impacts of carrying out these plans
have not yet been fully considered.
In China today, fully 80 percent of electricity is generated from coal.
Yes, it's true that the contribution from renewable sources is also
increasing ï¿½ you've perhaps seen photos of glistening new wind turbines
in China's deserts ï¿½ but green energy isn't currently displacing fossil
fuel sources; it's supplementing them. Both are growing rapidly. Between
2000 and 2010, China's total coal consumption increased threefold,
according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Administration. China's
coal-dependency isn't going away anytime soon ï¿½ quite the reverse.
Yet, in expanding coal-industry bases in west China, one crucial
challenge has so far received far less attention than it deserves:
Coal-based industries are massively water-intensive (in fact, coal
mining, coal-based power generation, and petrochemical processing
together account for more than one-fifth of China's total water usage).
And much of western China is already short on water ï¿½ think Gobi desert
and camels, as opposed to Pearl River Delta rice paddies. "The west of
China is an environmentally fragile area," says Professor Wang Xiujun,
who conducts research on climate and precipitation jointly for the
Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography and the University of
Maryland. "There's not much water to spare."
When new industry comes to town, water is secured by tapping local lakes
and rivers, pumping groundwater, and constructing reservoirs to capture
rainwater, which diverts its normal flow and reabsorption into the soil.
All three have unintended environmental consequences, says Sun Qingwei,
climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace China and a former
government scientist based in western Gansu province.
"There is not enough water to support a lot of industry and coal
operations in western China," Sun says. "If water resources are
exploited by the coal industry, that will lead to land degradation and
desertification. And the livelihood of the local communities is
damaged." Greenpeace China, which takes a research-based approach to its
work (in contrast to the organization's penchant for protest in other
countries), is currently working on a report to map the availability of
water in west China against the anticipated usage of new coal industry.
A glimpse of what the future may bring can be seen in Inner Mongolia ï¿½
the region's vast grasslands are gradually becoming a dust bowl. Over
the last decade, as new coal mines, petrochemical plants, and coal-fired
power stations have been built, local rivers have been dammed and
multiple wells dug. As a result, the water table has sunk, and
grasslands such as Xilingol have turned unproductive. The Wulagai
Wetland has all but dried up.
"The coal industry has changed the environment because it uses the
underground water," says Da Lintai, a researcher at Inner Mongolian
University. A changing climate, he adds, has likely also contributed to
desertification in Inner Mongolia. The result is that "it is more
difficult now for the herdsmen to find areas with sufficient water
sources. And the lack of water also influences the growth of the grass
to feed their animals."
Last May, a coal truck slammed into and killed a herder near Xilinhot,
Inner Mongolia. The protests that flared up after the incident were
widely reported as an instance of ethnic unrest, because the herder
belonged to the Mongolian minority group, and the driver was Han
Chinese. But locals say the root of anger was less about ethnic
differences than the fact that coal trucks have become a hated symbol of
the arrival of an industry that has destroyed local livelihoods.
To be sure, planners elsewhere in China are making efforts to conserve
water. In Ningxia in northwest China, for instance, a large coal-fired
power station that opened in 2010 was designed to use one-fifth the
water of traditional coal-fired plants, according to an investment stock
statement obtained by the US-based NGO Circle of Blue. This seems an
encouraging example of foresight. However, higher installation costs and
energy-usage of such air-cooled power plants may prove a hurdle to
What is gradually becoming apparent ï¿½ in China, as elsewhere ï¿½ is that
energy and water must be planned for together. Speaking recently at the
Beijing offices of the Nature Conservancy, Jennifer Turner, director of
the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum, called this
connection the "water-energy nexus." The imperative to conserve water in
China is especially urgent now because, as she added, "with climate
change, China is already losing water every year."
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