Winter is smog season in northern China, and this year it’s already off to a grim start. The air pollution in the region’s cities has been thicker than ever in the past week. On a recent day in Harbin, visibility was reduced to 30 feet. Schools were closed. An airport was shut down. The level of particulate matter in the air reached an unprecedented 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, some 40 times the limit deemed safe by the World Health Organization. In Beijing, emergency measures such as factory closings and vehicle bans have been put into place.
China knows that it has to fix its air pollution, and is working on multiple fronts to address the issue. But according to the World Resources Institute, one of the biggest components of the government’s strategy could create another kind of crisis, by putting unsustainable pressure on scarce water resources in the western part of the country.
Coal-fired power plants, which provide between 70 and 80 percent of the nation’s power, are a major contributor to the choking smog in China’s northern cities. The government aims to reduce coal’s share to 65 percent by 2017, in part by substituting synthetic natural gas (SNG) made from coal. It has approved 18 SNG plants to date.
The problem is, according to a Wednesday WRI blog post, that most of these plants will be located in the arid regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia — and producing SNG from coal is an extremely water-intensive process, requiring between six and 10 liters of freshwater to produce one cubic meter of gas.
According to WRI’s analysis, 77 percent of the approved SNG capacity would happen in places where water is already in high demand or inadequate. “Not only are these areas stressed,” says Tien Shiao, a senior associate at WRI who has studied the issue, “this will create additional stress.” The plants would consume between 500 million and 700 million cubic meters of fresh water each year, some 20 percent of the region’s total industrial water consumption in 2011.
The infrastructure in many of these areas, Shiao says, could be overwhelmed by the increased demand for water that the SNG plants would bring. In times of drought, she says, “they may potentially face disruption of operations.”
When it comes to natural resources, China is a divided country. Seventy-seven percent of the nation’s water is in the south, in the Yangtze River Basin. But the majority of arable land — and coal — is in the north. This mismatch exacerbates tension over how to allocate resource.
Another divide exists between the somewhat sparsely populated West and the politically powerful East. The WRI report points out that if plans to power Beijing with SNG made in Inner Mongolia proceed, “[t]his production would consume more than 32 billion liters of freshwater, enough to meet 1 million Inner Mongolians’ domestic needs for an entire year.”
Another potential source of conflict is the troubled relationship between the capital city and the Xinjiang province, which contains 40 percent of the coal reserves in China and where 11 of the approved SNG plants would open. Over the past several years, violence has periodically broken out between the indigenous Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim group who speak a Turkic language, and the Han Chinese.
The use of SNG has another environmental cost as well, according to WRI. While it emits fewer particulates, it releases “significantly more greenhouse gases than mainstream fossil fuels” — specifically, lifecycle CO2 emissions that are 36-108 percent higher than coal.
Shiao says her organization is well aware of the complexity of China’s situation. “We wanted to acknowledge China is facing many pollution and resource challenges,” she says. “And its leaders recognize that.” But ramping up SNG production will not provide a painless fix. “Where there are variabilities of water supply,” she says, “replacing coal with cleaner gas is in direct conflict with water resources. That’s a tradeoff.”
Short-term solutions for protecting water resources, she says, could include stricter caps on industrial use and better environmental standards for pollution. But in the long term, WRI recommends that China should “prioritize energy projects that face fewer environmental risks, especially from water and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Otherwise, in its attempt to control the catastrophic air pollution of its northern cities, China will only set the scene for a different environmental threat.
Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.