China’s dependence on coal brings not only major emissions-related risks but also a serious threat to the country’s water supplies, especially in its parched north

China may not be the world’s biggest consumer of water per capita, but with news that by 2020 the Asian giant expects to add coal-fired electricity generating capacity equivalent to twice Russia’s 2009 total power generation abilities, one cannot help but consider water use implications.

Today, 97% of power generated in China is reliant on water. During the recent World Water Week a major theme for the next, 2014, meeting was identified as Water and Energy – Making the Link, and one can be certain that China with its heavy reliance on coal, and as such water, will be a trending topic.

Beyond power generation, China, which after the US and Russia owns the third largest coal reserves, uses much of it in its coal-to-chemical industry, a sector whereby coal is used as feedstock to create petrochemical products such as ethylene and propylene, and which has gained much traction in the oil poor country.

As China seeks to maintain its economic prowess and cater to its growing population of 1.3 billion, its government has been planning 16 large-scale coal power stations across the country. According to a World Resources Institute (WRI) report, more than half of these would be concentrated in six northern provinces which together account for only 5% of China’s water resources.

Tien Shiao, senior associate for the WRI Aqueduct project, says: “Power plants need to be located in areas where they can access water. If they run out of water, they could stop running, disrupting supply for everyone depending on their power.”

Prof Asit Biswas, founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, says: “Northern China not only has a high population but is also the most economically developed part of the country. Their electricity needs are thus constantly growing. Naturally they want generation plants where the energy is needed. Unfortunately, north China is also most water-stressed. This creates the problem.”

Resources draining away

Situating these power plants in areas of high water stress will also worsen an already strained water supply and negatively impact other industries such as farming, as well as community access to water. Beyond polluting local water supplies for residents, existing coal mines are also sapping groundwater supplies, leading to agricultural distress. According to a Greenpeace report, local groundwater levels in some areas have fallen more than 100 metres.

The government has introduced national water saving initiatives which aim to place caps on annual water use, increase irrigation efficiency and improve water quality through pollution-reduction targets. It has also rolled out investment of 4 trillion yuan ($650bn) in water conservation projects. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. Shiao tells Ethical Corporation: “Power plants could increase water efficiency by installing water recycling and dry cooling systems, or reduce power plant development in the stressed north.”

Still, the world’s largest coal consumer is going to have to carefully manage its energy growth with particular attention on its coal-water balance. As Deng Ping from Greenpeace Beijing says: “This coal addiction development pattern needs to be reconsidered, and water limitation needs to be considered before the coal industry plan”.

China  corporate governance  green energy  resources  water supply 

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