Coal plants are causing water shortages in China

Wong, E. March 22, 2016. Report Ties Coal Plants to Water Shortage in Northern China. New York Times.

China’s consumption of coal, a major contributor to climate change and the country’s horrific air pollution, is worsening a severe water shortage in the northern part of the country, Greenpeace said in a report released Tuesday. China’s coal-fired power plants consume more water where water is scarce than plants in any other country, according to the report, which assessed global water depletion from coal use.

A decades-long drought in northern China — home to the bulk of the country’s coal production and consumption — is worsening, and the central and local governments are grappling with widespread desertification. Officials have relocated millions of people. Beijing, the capital, where more than 20 million people live, has extremely low water levels.

The problem is so severe in the north that China has built an enormous series of canals, the South-North Water Diversion Project, to transport water hundreds of miles from the Yangtze River.

In much of northern China, people are using water faster than it can be regenerated, Greenpeace said, “posing a serious threat to local ecology.”

At the end of 2013, China had 45% of the world’s coal-fired power plants, with a total installed capacity of 804 gigawatts, according to research by Greenpeace and a summary of findings in its 60-page report, “The Great Water Grab.” Nearly half of the plants were in water-scarce areas, and those had a total annual water consumption of 3.4 billion cubic meters, enough to meet the basic needs of about 186 million people, the researchers found.

Across all of China, coal-fired power plants consume 7.4 billion cubic meters of water each year, enough to meet the needs of 406 million people, or about 30% of the nation’s population, according to the report.

Plants proposed for construction would worsen the problem, the report found. Half of those plants, which would have a total installed capacity of 237 gigawatts, would be built in water-scarce areas. They would consume 1.8 billion cubic meters of water, equal to the annual needs of 100 million people, the report said. The plants would cost about $100 billion to build, and they would worsen the country’s huge overcapacity in coal-fired power plants.

After China, the top countries with the highest water consumption by coal-fired plants in water-scarce areas were India, the United States, Kazakhstan and Canada. China also tops the list for proposed coal-fired plants in water-scarce areas, followed by India, Turkey, the United States and Kazakhstan.

The Greenpeace report was based on modeling done by a Dutch engineering firm, Witteveen & Bos. Data on existing and proposed coal-fired power plants at the end of 2013 was drawn mainly from Platts World Electric Power Plants Database.


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