At first glance, Daliuta in northern China appears to have a river running through it. A closer look reveals the stretch of water in the center is a pond, dammed at both ends. Beyond the barriers, the Wulanmulun’s bed is dry.
Daliuta in Shaanxi province sits on top of the world’s biggest underground coal mine, which requires millions of liters of water a day for extracting, washing and processing the fuel. The town is the epicenter of a looming collision between China’s increasingly scarce supplies of water and its plan to power economic growth with coal.
“Water shortages will severely limit thermal power capacity additions,” said Charles Yonts, head of sustainable research at brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Hong Kong. “You can’t reconcile targets for coal production in, say, Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia with their water targets.”
Coal industries and power stations use as much as 17 percent of China’s water, and almost all of the collieries are in the vast energy basin in the north that is also one of the country’s driest regions. By 2020 the government plans to boost coal-fired power by twice the total generating capacity of India.
About half of China’s rivers have dried up since 1990 and those that remain are mostly contaminated. Without enough water, coal can’t be mined, new power stations can’t run and the economy can’t grow. At least 80 percent of the nation’s coal comes from regions where the United Nations says water supplies are either “stressed” or in “absolute scarcity.”
China has about 1,730 cubic meters of fresh water per person, close to the 1,700 cubic meter-level the UN deems “stressed.” The situation is worse in the north, where half China’s people, most of its coal and only 20 percent of its water are located.