Nearly 10 billion cubic metres of water - a quarter of the water that can be allocated for use from the Yellow River in a normal year - will be consumed by 16 new coal-fired power plants on the mainland by 2015, exacerbating water shortages in the arid northwest, a Greenpeace report said yesterday.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources, commissioned by Greenpeace, calculated this was the least possible amount of water likely to be used by the power plants due to be built under China's 12th five-year plan.
The power projects, mostly in northern and western China, will be able to provide more than a third of the mainland's coal-fired power generation capacity in 2015, while at the same time sucking in at least 9.975 billion cubic metres of water.
As a result, the report says, northwestern regions such as Inner Mongolia , Shaanxi , Shanxi and Ningxia , where 11 of the power plants will be located, will experience severe water supply challenges in the next three years.
"China is trading millions of people's water rights for energy," said Li Yan, Greenpeace's East Asia climate and energy campaign manager.
If all the water-intensive generating plants are built, they will restrict the water available for other uses, such as agriculture, and even tap into residents' drinking water.
The researchers said that desperate farmers and thirsty urban residents would increase the risk of social upheaval in unstable border areas. In Inner Mongolia, the demand for water by coal mines, power plants and chemical factories during the five-year plan is projected to more than double by 2015.
The autonomous region has already seen protests and riots by Mongolian herdsmen whose pastures vanished after mines and factories sucked rivers and lakes dry.
Pollution is also forecast to rise, adding to the shortage of usable water, the report says. With most coal mines in remote areas, where environmental checks are lax, they will dump waste water containing harmful chemicals into rivers or lakes.
"Two years into the five-year plan, it's time to rethink the pros and cons of this westward coal expansion and acknowledge the painful heritage it will leave: huge carbon emissions, horrible air pollution and a grim future for vast arid areas," Li said.
But Professor Song Xianfang , deputy director of the institute's Key Laboratory of Water Cycle and Related Land Surface Processes, said the spectre of water shortages would not stop the building of more coal-fired power plants.
Song, a key author of the Greenpeace study, said the central government's top concern was to produce enough coal to solve the mainland's electricity shortage.
When local governments drafted their plans, their priorities were to speed up growth, generate jobs and collect more tax. "They don't worry about whether there will be enough water in the region to support their plans because they think they can always find ways to squeeze water from other sectors, such as natural reserves and agriculture," he said.