Between a desert and a dry place: Beijing’s green projects drain scarce water resources | South China Morning Post

Smog-plagued Beijing is anxiously awaiting its first batch of synthetic natural gas – a material converted from coal and piped 300 kilometres from Heshigten Banner in northeastern Inner Mongolia.

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The gas will power some of Beijing\’s central heating systems in the harsh winter months, replacing coal to cut harmful emissions of particulate pollutants.

When the pipes are fully pumping next year, Beijing will receive 4 billion cubic metres of synthetic gas a year – nearly half of last year\’s natural gas consumption – a step towards switching all the city\’s heating systems and industrial boilers from coal to gas.

But there is an ominous tinge to the seemingly green investment: environmental experts say the water-intensive conversion process could drain already scarce water resources in the country\’s drylands in the northwest, eroding land and causing more sandstorms.

\”If water depletion continues … not only will the local people suffer, the environmental impact could be profound,\” Chinese Academy of Sciences ecology researcher Xie Yan says.

Nationwide, replacing dirty coal with cleaner natural gas is a key measure in reducing the choking smog that spreads over more than a quarter of the country and is inhaled by nearly 600 million people. Because of the country\’s limited conventional natural gas and abundant coal reserves, converting coal to natural gas seems a convenient choice.

Beijing\’s demand for natural gas is expected to rise rapidly, reaching 18 billion tonnes in 2015 and 28 billion tonnes in 2020, as all its heating systems and industrial boilers make the switch from coal to gas. Beijing Gas Group, which is fully owned by the municipal government, has invested in the coal-to-gas project in Inner Mongolia to meet the demand.

The coal-to-gas industry, which had been sputtering for several years, received a boost in September when the State Council released a national action plan to fight air pollution, giving the sector explicit support.

But ecological experts have voiced concern for the unintended environmental consequence of coal-to-gas plants. The conversion requires vast quantities of water not just for production, but also for cooling and the removal of contaminants. On average, one cubic metre of synthetic natural gas needs six to 10 tonnes of freshwater.

\”Freshwater is a key raw material for turning coal to gas, so it\’s impossible to reduce water demand in such projects,\” Wen Hua, an associate at the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI), says.

To make things worse, the coal-abundant northwest, where the gas projects are based, already experiences chronic water shortages. Five provinces – Shanxi , Shaanxi , Ningxia , Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang – which possess 76 per cent of the country\’s coal reserves, have just 6.14 per cent of its total water resources.

via Between a desert and a dry place: Beijing’s green projects drain scarce water resources | South China Morning Post.

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