The China dilemma: cheap coal energy v. clean water

Even though China has substantial water resources, demographics, population, geography and politics make water a complicated issue. From a water supply standpoint, therefore, China's ambitious coal development project is likely to be unsustainable.

For one thing, water and coal resources are unevenly distributed within China, with rich coal deposits in the dry, water-stressed north and abundant water in the less mineral-rich south.

Additionally, even though China has thefifth largest water supply in the world, the average amount of water available per person per year (1,730 cubic meters) is near to what the United Nations considers the baseline for water stress: the point when demand for water for communities, agriculture, industry, and the environment exceeds the available supply or where poor water quality restricts its use.

WRI defines high-risk water stress areas as those where 40 percent or more of the renewable water supply is used every year; it defines extremely high-risk areas as those where over 80 percent of the available water supply is withdrawn yearly.

The Washington, DC based think tank reports thatover half of the coal power plants proposedby China would be located in areas with either high or extremely high water stress. According toWRI's analysis, 60 percent of the proposed generating capacity will be concentrated in six provinces containing only five percent of China's total water resources.

Moreover, according to a recentGreenpeace China report, if all the 363 proposed plants are built, by 2015 China's coal industry could withdraw almost 10 billion cubic meters of water every year.

"That's more than one-quarter of the water available for withdrawal every year from the Yellow River,"writes Tianyi Luofor WRI.

Read more: