China’s Looming Conflict Between Energy and Water

China’s growing thirst for energy is driving increased exploitation of inland resources. At Yale Environment 360, Christina Larson examines the environmental implications of China’s ‘West-to-East Coal-Power Diversion’ plan, and explains why “energy and water must be planned for together.”

The country’s top leaders have made provisions for both increasing overall coal production and easing the coal-transportation bottleneck. The most recent Five-Year Plan, the central government’s primary planning document, calls for significantly increasing coal production, which will be achieved by developing and expanding 14 large “coal-industry bases” across western China; these bases will include facilities for coal mining, petrochemical processing, and coal-fired power plants ….

Yet, in expanding coal-industry bases in west China, one crucial challenge has so far received far less attention than it deserves: Coal-based industries are massively water-intensive (in fact, coal mining, coal-based power generation, and petrochemical processing together account for more than one-fifth of China’s total water usage). And much of western China is already short on water — think Gobi desert and camels, as opposed to Pearl River Delta rice paddies. “The west of China is an environmentally fragile area,” says Professor Wang Xiujun, who conducts research on climate and precipitation jointly for the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography and the University of Maryland. “There’s not much water to spare.”

See also Economic Observer (via CDT) on problems with the south’s inter-province electricity trade last year, after water and coal shortages in Guizhou forced power rationing in the industrial Pearl River Delta.