HEXIGTEN QI, China — On a bitter cold day in Inner Mongolia, the grasslands here hold an unexpected sight: a shallow lake so warm that the surface is shrouded in steam.
This lake is a recent addition, formed by water discharged from a new plant that converts coal into methane gas.
When operating at full capacity, the Datang International plant will require more than 7 billion gallons of water each year. And this is just a side stream of the vast flows of water demanded by plants turning coal into gas, chemicals and electricity in Inner Mongolia and other regions of China’s north and west.
These coal complexes rank among the planet’s largest industrial emitters of carbon dioxide, which in the decades ahead will escalate climate change and acidification of the oceans.
But right now, the coal industry’s massive thirst may be both its biggest liability and the biggest constraint to expansion in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people struggling with serious water shortages.
Vast amounts of water are used for cooling and processing some 4 billion tons of coal that China consumes each year.
Some 15 percent of the nation’s annual water withdrawals are claimed by the coal industry, with many mines and plants located in arid areas where rivers are under stress, underground aquifers are in decline and pollution is rampant.
In the decades ahead, climate change will aggravate China’s water problems by melting glaciers that help sustain the summer flows of some major rivers. By 2030, the basin of the Yellow River, China’s second-longest river, is forecast to be 18 percent short of the water needed to meet demand, according to a study from China’s Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.
Conservation efforts by the Chinese government include the construction of new coal-fired power plants that recirculate the water used for cooling. China also is spending $62 billion to redistribute water by canals from wetter areas of the country to dry zones in one of the biggest construction projects of all time.
Despite such efforts, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in a report released in 2013, noted that most of the power plants operated by the five largest state-owned power companies are in water-scarce areas and at high risk of flow disruptions during the next two decades. There may not be enough water to support all the new coal plants, the report added.
In Inner Mongolia, water shortages have been a problem for decades. Overgrazing and farming have turned some once-productive lands into dust bowls, forcing the relocation of thousands of people, and stirring up huge sand storms that have swept across Asia.
Coal development in recent years added to the region’s stresses, accelerating desertification as open-pit mines reroute water flows and coal plants draw from water reserves.
“We already find great tension between coal and water. Many communities are affected, and the industry is overusing water from the major rivers,” said Sun Qingwei, an environmental activist with a Ph.D. in geography who has conducted extensive research in Inner Mongolia and other arid regions.
For China’s environmental movement, water shortages have emerged as a rallying cry in their campaign to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal. In recent years, the movement has been buoyed by growing public concern about industrial pollution, and activists such as Sun have taken on a more aggressive watchdog role.
Sun is a slender man with a wry smile, whose family roots are in the coal industry in China’s Shandong province, where his father worked as a mining engineer. He ventured underground only once, when his father gave him a tour that ended in a spot where eight miners died.
“He wanted me to remember where I live — and where I grow up,” Sun said. “It is a very deep memory. They (miners) work so hard, and struggle just to survive. I have a deep respect for them.”
Sun spent most of his career at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he examined the causes of desertification in western and northern regions. He found that coal development was taking an increasing toll on the water resources.
In 2011, he went to work for Greenpeace’s Beijing office. “As a researcher, you just point out the challenge, but I wanted to contribute my energy to change the environment,” Sun said.
The first coal report he researched was released in 2012 in an unusual partnership between Greenpeace and his former employer, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It found that water demands of major coal hubs would claim water now used for farming and urban populations by 2015, and urged the government to reconsider the “size and scale” of the coal expansion.
He then took on Shenhua Group, a state-owned corporation that is China’s largest coal producer.
Shenhua drilled 22 wells in western Inner Mongolia to supply the water for a plant that turned coal into liquid fuels near the city of Ordos.
Sun led a Greenpeace team that took 11 field trips to the region last year. Their research showed that Shenhua’s pumping had caused groundwater levels to drop by more than 300 feet and dried up many of the shallow wells that were vital to more than 2,400 farm families.
The Greenpeace report released last July accused Shenhua of a “ruthless water grab.” The report charged that Shenhua’s actions violated China’s environmental policies and laws, accelerated desertification and reduced the productivity of farming and grazing lands.
The report claimed Shenhua was illegally discharging polluted water into earthen pits.
Chinese newspapers initially covered the report on their websites, but those stories disappeared within hours.
Leaked orders from a government censor indicated that China’s media were ordered to delete any references or comments posted about the report.
Later in the summer, Sun said, he and two other Greenpeace staffers got called to the Foreign Ministry. They were asked why the findings had not first been delivered to the government.
“They are all very polite,” Sun recalled. But they warned him to be careful about what he was saying.
Shenhua officials, in written statements, responded that groundwater tests had not shown signs of contamination from the wastewater discharges. They also said the company was developing new ways to dramatically reduce water use.
In April, Shenhua announced it would seek alternatives to taking water from the groundwater zone to “minimize disputes.”
Sun left Greenpeace last summer. But he continued to meet with government water researchers to press home the report’s findings.
Public interest lawyers also are attempting to hold Shenhua accountable under the still evolving framework of Chinese environmental law.
In July, just after the Greenpeace report was released, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims filed a lawsuit accusing Shenhua of illegal discharge of wastewater and pumping too much water.
They sued in a Beijing court on behalf of Nature University and Friends of Nature, two of China’s oldest environmental organizations. The lawsuit seeks, so far unsuccessfully, a court order that would force Shenhua to clean up the wastewater areas and stop tapping into the underground wells that supply water to the plants that convert coal to liquid fuel.
“You (coal companies) want the water. But this is not just your water,” said Liu Jimei, an attorney who helped develop the lawsuit. “That is for all the people who live in the west. It is the most valuable thing for them. Because they have water, they can live there. And when the soil gets drier and drier, they have to move.”
Despite the water shortages in northern and western China, the government has continued to approve construction of a new generation of water-guzzling plants that turn coal into methane gas.
These plants, which use water not only for cooling but also for the conversion process, far surpass the water demands of traditional coal-fired electricity plants.
The 18 coal-to-gas plants that have so far received preliminary approval for construction would collectively use more than 120 billion gallons of water annually. That’s more than twice the amount of water used in Seattle in 2013.
The World Resources Institute found that 11 of those proposed plants are in areas of such severe water stress that they likely would have to reduce production or shut down during some dry seasons.
“The plants would ... significantly exacerbate stress in areas already experiencing chronic water shortages,” wrote three of the institute’s researchers.
One of the first plants to begin producing this gas was built by Datang International in eastern Inner Mongolia, where a site visit in December found a new lake forming from water discharged in a flat expanse of brush and bleached white grasses.
The plant draws water from a reservoir.
A local herder interviewed by The Seattle Times said that Datang also has purchased the rights to some wells in the areas where grazing can no longer occur due to plant operations.
Company officials have said they will not use that underground water to help process the coal but wanted to compensate herders for the lost access to the wells, according to the herder.
“They (Datang) are afraid that if they use the underground water it would go away,” the herder said.
Datang did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even as billions of dollars of new investment flow into China’s coal industry, there are signs the government is taking greater note of the toll on water supplies.
Some water-intensive projects to turn coal into liquid fuels have been put on hold.
And in a 2012 news conference, Hu Siyi, a Chinese vice-minister, declared that China’s water use has “already surpassed what our natural resources can bear.” He outlined new steps to confront the shortages.
Earlier this year, China’s National Energy Board called for taking water resources into account when undertaking new coal development in western China and has announced new restrictions on the use of groundwater.
But a new water ethic still seems like a stretch when you visit the city that Sun calls home.
Since leaving the Beijing office of Greenpeace last summer, he has rejoined his wife and son in Lanzhou, an industrial city in western China on the Yellow River. This river is one of China’s most important waterways — and also one of the most polluted and overused.
On a day when dirty air hangs over the city like maritime fog, Sun drives up a rutted road to a hilltop community of aging homes. There, he checks out another coal-fired power plant that recently started up, twin boilers billowing steam, on land once tilled by local farmers.
Yet Sun remains, somewhat improbably, an optimist. He believes that the government will rethink coal development. Not decades down the road, but soon, as water scarcity bears down on the nation’s dry reaches.
“There is a natural limit to the growth of coal in China. More and more people realize this,” Sun said. “This industry is not sustainable.”
(The China Environment Forum at The Woodrow Wilson Center, and Circle of Blue, an online news service covering global water issues, assisted with research in this reporting effort. This series was supported by a Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fellowship enabled reporter Hal Bernton to spend the academic year at Marquette reporting this project and working with students from the Diederich College of Communication. Graduate student Zhu Ye assisted in the China series.)
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