Black coal, thin ice: China’s coal shifting to the west puts water in peril

As Beijing moves to curtail coal use, China’s coal development is moving west, which threatens the country’s valuable water resources and thus the human right to water of many citizens.
Li Shuo, campaigner with Greenpeace China
Published: 6 years, 11 months ago (08/19/2014)
Updated: 2 years, 7 months ago (12/21/2018)

The headquarters of the Muli opencast coal mine owned by the Kingho Group is located between the huge mounds of opencast mine and the Qilian Mountains. The picture was taken on 20th June, 2014. ©Wu Haitao/Greenpeace

As Beijing moves to curtail coal use, China’s coal development is moving west, which threatens the country’s valuable water resources.

The latest dispatch by Greenpeace investigators from the high in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau sends a worrying signal, and has been widely picked up in China.

Four thousand three hundred meters above sea level, at the foot of the magnificent Qilian Mountains, slag heaps from coal form a sharp contrast with the glaciers and snow-topped mountains which are vital sources for China’s the Yellow river – often called China’s “mother river”.

New frontier

This is the new frontier of China’s coal development.

Our investigation found a number of local coal companies mining at the very source of one of the Yellow River’s most important tributaries.

The opencast mines are in violation of China’s laws and regulations. They have ruined alpine meadows and the precious water stored in them, breaking the connection between arid land down below and the glacial melt water from the mountains.

In fact this region, the greater Qinghai-Tibet area is often considered China’s water tower, the source for many of China’s most important waterways.

From the plateau the Datong and Buha Rivers pass directly through the mining sites and flow directly into the Yellow River (China’s second longest river) and Qinghai Lake (China’s largest salt lake), respectively.

Water shortages

This is the latest stage of the daunting water challenge imposed by China’s coal exploitation in often arid regions, an environmental threat which could prove as serious as air pollution in the east.

As a 2012 joint study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Greenpeace finds, 16 large scale coal power bases (many of them located in the Yellow River Basin) are planned for the 12th Five Year period.

In total, these bases will require almost 10 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, an equivalent of one sixth of the total annual water volume of the Yellow River.

Exacerbating the water crisis is the emerging coal-to-gas industry that is predominantly located in China’s arid northwestern provinces.

According to the latest evaluation, there are in total 50 projects operating or seeking approval. If all of these extremely water intensive projects went online, they will inject significant pressure to the vulnerable local ecologic system.

As the east is busy fixing dramatic air pollution by controlling coal consumption, the gravity of the country’s coal appetite risks shifting westward. A defining moment is unfolding now. Unlike air pollution, which can be improved through emission control efforts, once extracted some of the water in the fragile west may never be restored.


Li Shuo, "From Beijing: Black coal, thin ice – China’s coal shifting to the west puts water in peril", Greenpeace China, 06/08/ 2014,