|August 14, 2012|
The following is an excerpt from a report entitled "Thirsty Coal: A Water Crisis Exacerbated by China's New Mega Coal Power Bases" by Green Peace:
3. China's Biggest Power Bases: Thriving on the Corpse of Grasslands
The construction and operation of coal-power bases in ecologically vulnerable areas such as China’s west is a nightmare unfolding for the people living on the grasslands. Not only will they lose their grazing land to coal mines, they will also witness and suffer the destruction of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems, vegetation degradation, soil erosion, and – ultimately – exacerbated desertification.
To support hydraulic projects in the coal-power bases artificial reservoirs are constructed, cutting off natural rivers that are supposed to feed into grasslands, forests, wetlands and other ecosystems downstream. Gradually, grasslands and wetlands will turn into deserts, no longer able to support crop and animal farming.
The consequences of these disruptions to the ecology are most clearly demonstrated at Inner Mongolia’s Xilin Gol and Hulun Buir coal bases, where the environmental nightmare is quickly climaxing in a tragic catastrophe.
3.1 Eastern Inner Mongolia, Where the Green Gives in to the Black
Inner Mongolia is a key region for the expansion of the coal-power bases as outlined in the 12th Five-Year Plan. But the region faces a harsh reality: while it is blessed with 26% of China’s coal reserves, it only has 1.6% of the country’s water resources. Thirsty Coal estimates that in 2015, the major coal-power bases in the region will demand a water volume 139.5% of its industrial water consumption in 2010. And let’s remember the expansion of coal-power bases in Inner Mongolia has already brought about irreversible destruction of water resources, grasslands and forests, and affected the lives of local residents.
The Mengdong coal-power base10 is China’s largest coal-producing area and the fastest growing region in terms of coal yield. Its coal output is predicted to reach 520 million tons by 2015 and 693 million tons by 2020, if it develops as planned. However, it also happens to spread over Inner Mongolia’s – and arguably China’s – most beautiful and fragile grasslands: the Xilin Gol grasslands, Hulun Buir grasslands and the Horqin grasslands. These grasslands are located in arid and semi-arid areas, and their very survival relies on groundwater. Taking groundwater out of their soil means guaranteed desertification for these areas. It is estimated that some 73.5% of Inner Mongolia’s grasslands are already degraded 11. The Hulun Buir Grassland Supervision Station and the Inner Mongolia Grassland Survey and Design Institute found that the area suffering from grassland degradation, desertification and salinization was 3.982 million hectares at the beginning of this century, increasing two-fold from the 1980s when the number was 2.097 million hectares. This report predicts that by 2015 the annual water demand from Inner Mongolia’s coal mining industry will reach 2.218 billion m3. Another 606 million m3 of water will be consumed for coal-fired power generation within the region, and 329 million m3 for its coal chemical industry. That means a total of 3.153 billion m3of water demand for all three coal-related sectors, which is close to the total volume of water resources of the Xilin Gol grasslands. The development of coal power bases has caused a fundamental change to the distribution of the grasslands’ water resources: groundwater is pulled out, and reservoirs are built to trap surface water.
Pumping out groundwater is a prelude to coal extraction. In fact, it is estimated that for every ton of coal extracted, 2.54 m3 of groundwater is destroyed12 . For example, the Shendong and Mengdong coal bases in Inner Mongolia destroy 2.64 billion m3 of groundwater every year. In open-cast coal mining areas in Inner Mongolia, aquifers have dried up and groundwater levels have fallen, leaving the regions’ main water resources depleted. Further long-term effects of this include degradation of topsoil into sand, lowered soil fertility and decrease in crop yields.
3.2 Inner Mongolia’s Desertification: A State-Owned Tragedy
Greenpeace investigations also found that some of China’s biggest power companies have direct investments in dam projects that grab river water meant to feed entire grasslands. For example, China Huaneng Group has built the Honghuaerji Reservoir which dams the Yimin River. China Power Investment has built the Gaolehan Reservoir which dams the Gaolehan River. The Wulagai Reservoir has also been rebuilt for the development of coal mines, coal power plants and coal chemical plants, damming the Wulagai River.
According to the HulunBuir Hydrological Survey Bureau, in recent years, most of the grasslands’ rivers have seen water levels drop or simply dried up. The Yimin River, which provides water for the southeastern part of the HulunBuir grassland but is now cut off and dammed by Huaneng, has tragically dried up - even in flood season. Weak surface and ground water supply will result in degradation of forests and wetlands. In 2006, two years after the Wulagai Reservoir began damming the Wulagai River to meet the water demand of a RMB 20 billion coal chemical plant, the Wulagai Wetland completely dried up. The “wetlands”, once a green haven for hygrophytes, are now major contributors to the North’s infamous winter & spring sandstorms.
10. The Mongdong Coal Power Base includes the Shengli coalfield, the Baiyinhua coalfield, the Baorixile coalfield, and the Huolinhe coalfield.
12. Liu Shuiquan, 2009, Consideration on Sustainable Use of Water Resources in Shanxi Province. Water Resource Management, (5): 44-45.For Full Report in PDF click here