News Feature | August 4, 2014

Coal Drinking Up Water In Drought-Ridden China

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

Coal Drinking Up Water In Drought-Ridden China

China's gigantic coal industry is straining the country's dwindling water resources.

"Right now, the coal industry's massive thirst may be both its biggest liability and the biggest constraint to expansion in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people struggling with serious water shortages," the Seattle Times reported. "Vast amounts of water are used for cooling and processing some 4 billion tons of coal that China consumes each year."

The coal industry drinks up about 15 percent of the nation's yearly water withdrawals, the report said, and many mines and plants sit in areas suffering significant water stress. "Underground aquifers are in decline and pollution is rampant," the report said. 

Burning coal is a water-intensive operation. 

"A typical coal plant uses enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every three and a half minutes. To put it in global terms, that is about 8 percent of our total global water demand. What it doesn't consume it spits out as millions of tons of pollutants into our fresh-water rivers, lakes and streams. We are seeing the effects of this in the US, where a coal slurry spill left 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water. In addition, acidic water drainage from old mines can make entire water supplies unfit for people, decades after closure," The Guardian said in a report earlier this year.

China's coal industry is particularly notorious for the threat it poses to the environment. 

"Even with a slowing economy and greater reliance upon renewable energy, China will be a heavy coal user for decades. The sheer size of the economy -- now the world’s second largest -- means that slower growth than this year’s 7.5 percent target won’t prevent electricity demand from increasing. As total power generation more than doubles by 2030, China will be adding capacity equal to the entire U.K. power grid each year with coal firing 58 percent of the system," Bloomberg reported.

China is not alone. The coal-and-water problem is playing out in the U.S., as well. 

"The United States withdraws 410 billion gallons of both fresh and saline water a day from its rivers, lakes as well as aquifers. Roughly 85 percent is fresh water. About half is used to cool thermoelectric power plants, and most of that cools coal-powered plants," the Michigan Land Use Institute reported, citing the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency. The coal industry is feeling the heat, and the problem is posing a financial risk. 

"Regional water concerns are creating significant financial risks, thanks in large part to advanced global commodity trading and energy industries’ high dependence on water. And it’s a trend that is poised to worsen. BP projects a 36 percent increase in global energy consumption by 2030, while the Water Resources Group predicts that in the same amount of time freshwater supplies will fall 40 percent short of total demand globally," the World Resources Institute reported

Image credit: "Morning Haze (Tianjin, China)," ~MVI~ (warped) © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: