Greenpeace reports highlights risk of future water crisis in China

The Yangtze river (C) NASA

By Angeli Datt

On August 14th, Greenpeace East Asia released the findings of a report it commissioned on water usage by Chinese coal plants in the northwest of the country. The report describes the expected water usage of the new coal plants being built to handle China’s huge energy demands, and suggests that this will lead to an inevitable water crisis. These new plants will consume 9.98 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, which is equivalent to one-sixth of the annual total water of the Yellow River. Water resources are very uneven in China, with the north accounting for one-fifth of the nation’s water but two-thirds of its cropland.

China plans on constructing 16 large-scale coal plants as a part of the energy targets of the current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). The country currently gets 70% of its energy from coal, which is needed to fuel the country’s rapidly developing economy. The report, undertaken by the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, questions the feasibility of China’s ambitious coal energy plans. Aside from the enormous usage of water, poorly developed projects would both drain groundwater and pollute existing water resources affecting other industries and communities.

Fourteen large-scale coal mining bases will be constructed, which will in turn fuel the 16 coal plants that will have a total expected capacity of 600 GW. Several of the mining operations will be located in Inner Mongolia, which has 26% of the nation’s coal but only 1.6% of its water.  These mining operations together will account for 56% of China’s coal output in 2015. The report estimates that by 2015, the coal bases in Inner Mongolia will require a water volume equal to 139% of industrial water usage in 2010.

Coal mining in Inner Mongolia has already led to student protests in Xilin Gol over land property rights. As one of China’s autonomous provinces, any form of protest in the province is viewed as a possible security threat by the central government. While Inner Mongolia does not have the same kind of ethnic unrest as Xinjiang or Tibet, officials in China are extremely fearful on any kind of threat to social stability. As such, the reaction by the government to these protests was very heavy-handed.

China’s uneven water distribution has led to such monumental projects as the North-South Water Diversion Project. The aim is to divert water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow and Hai Rivers.  The multi-billion dollar project will aim to transfer approximately 45 billion cubic meters of water from the south to the water-scarce north, though the environmental and social impact will be huge.

The North-South Water Transfer Project was originally conceptualized by Mao Zedong, and includes controversial plans to divert water from the Brahmaputra River (Tsangpo in China). This water system flows south through Tibet into Assam, supplying Northern Indian and Bangladesh. The government in Beijing has stated that there are no plans to divert the river, though there is the fear that the resource-hungry nation will have no choice in the future.

Water resource security is of great concern between neighbours in South Asia and Southeast Asia.  Indian politicians, journalists and activists have written of their fear of China’s upstream control of the Brahmaputra, forcing India’s prime minister to release a statement in 2011 restating China’s assurances that it was not going to divert the river. Southeast Asian nations are already locked in several long-standing disputes over water resources. China has built a series of dams on the upstream portions of the Mekong River, leading to accusations from activists that it is drastically reducing water levels downstream.

It is clear that water is of the utmost importance to countries economic and social security. However, it is unclear if China is willing to put its economic growth above everything else, including long-term water stability. The resources that fuel its economic growth are finite, and will become more important if China wishes to enjoy sustainable economic growth.

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