China's coal-powered economy
is drying the country up
Water demand to exceed supply by 200B cubic meters by 2030
& only ¼ of groundwater in North China Plain now fit to drink
Record coal-powered smog, Beijing, 2013
China’s coal-powered economy may soon be coming up against the hard reality of limited resources — coal mining/processing uses up an incredible amount of water, and water is a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce throughout much of China. As climate change continues to intensify, water scarcity is predicted to become a significant problem throughout much of the country. With an economy that is dependent to such a large degree upon coal, what will happen as the resource becomes increasingly expensive to extract? It’s no wonder that the country is investing so much in renewable energy research/technology.
The coal industry, and its associated power stations, are responsible for somewhere around 17% of China’s overall annual water use — that’s a very significant amount of water, especially when you consider that China’s coal industry is primarily based in the country’s dry northern regions. As it stands now, water scarcity is already becoming a problem, but with the pursuit of China’s stated goal of boosting coal-fired power by twice the total generating capacity of India by the year 2020, it’s set to become even more significant.
“Water shortages will severely limit thermal power capacity additions,” stated Charles Yonts, the head of sustainable research at brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Hong Kong. “You can’t reconcile targets for coal production in, say, Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia with their water targets.”
It’s not just off in the future, though, the effects on water availability are already being felt — since the year 1990, more than half of China’s rivers have completely dried up, and much of those that haven’t are heavily contaminated. The hard reality of limited water availability is of course a problem for the individuals that live in the areas most affected, but it is also a significant problem for China as a whole, especially its economy — without enough water, coal simply can’t be mined, power stations can’t run, and the largely coal-powered economy of the country won’t grow.
There are some measures, though, which could be taken to help address this — such as increased industrial/mining water re-use. But, so far, such measures haven’t been taken for economic reasons. Currently, about 40% of industrial water is re-used in China, as compared to 75–85% in the much of the “developed world,” according to the World Bank. Chinese industry is also reported to “use 4-10 times more water per unit of production than the average in developed countries.” But, of course, this inefficiency with regard to resource use — and also lax environmental regulations — has a lot to do with why so much of what China produces is so cheap.
Bloomberg has some specifics on the situation (a situation that it’s worth noting isn’t vastly different from the situation facing the American Southwest):
At least 80% of the nation’s coal comes from regions where the United Nations says water supplies are either “stressed” or in “absolute scarcity.” China has about 1,730 cubic meters of fresh water per person, close to the 1,700 cubic meter-level the UN deems “stressed.” The situation is worse in the north, where half China’s people, most of its coal and only 20% of its water are located.
Shanxi — the nation’s biggest coal base, with about 28% of production — has per capita water resources of 347 cubic meters, less than the Middle Eastern nation of Oman. Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, which together contribute 40% of coal output, have less than 1,700 cubic meters per person.
A government plan to boost the coal industry and build more power plants near mines will lift industrial demand for water in Inner Mongolia 141% by 2015 from 2010, causing aquifers to dry up and deserts to expand, according to Greenpeace and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources. About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.
Wells drilled near Haolebaoji near Ordos by Shenhua Group, the world’s biggest coal producer, have caused groundwater levels to drop to a depth of as much as 100 meters, drying out the region’s artesian wells.
“After five years there won’t be enough water in Ordos in Inner Mongolia,” stated Sun Qingwei, director of the climate and energy campaign at Greenpeace in Beijing. “The mines are stealing ground water from agriculture. Local governments want their economies to boom.”
And, of course, most of the water that is available is heavily polluted. “A government survey published in February 2013 shows that only about a quarter of the groundwater in the North China Plain — an area that’s bigger than Greece and includes Beijing and Tianjin, the province of Hebei and parts of Henan and Shandong — is fit for human consumption.”
As it stands now, without significant policy changes, China’s water demand will exceed supply by as much as 200 billion cubic meters by 2030, according to a report released last year by the Asian Development Bank.