The northern city of Xilinhot is booming as the coal industry expands. But it will take a lot of water to feed both the city and mining.
Originally posted on the CSRwire website.
By Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue
Wu Yun, 23, tucks in her mittens and pulls on furry boots to help her father feed the livestock, as a frigid blast of razor-sharp ice crystals - some of them blackened from the dust of nearby open-pit coal mines - rolls across the horizon, stopping only to swirl and tear at exposed flesh. She hunkers down, unlatches the gate and lets the sheep out to graze on the fragile, brown stubble.
Wu Yun looks out over the plains, where in summertime she rides her stout horse above the rolling dust. Today the acerbic rasp of smoke from nearby coal-fired power plants winds through the air. On one side, yurts and lambs. On the other, 300-meter-high (1,000-foot-high) buttes made of tailings from Datan International Shengli Mine, China’s largest brown coal mine, which officials say could become China’s largest open-pit mine in a few years.
Wu Yun, 23, stands on the plains of the Mongolian grasslands near Xilinhot, where in summertime she rides her stout horse over the rolling dust. Just 30 meters below her feet are the rich veins of coal that fuel a nation. Photo: © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue
Brown coal, which has lower energy content than black coal, is the fuel of choice in this part of Inner Mongolia. It is the power source for big electrical generating plants, but it is also piled outside homes, including Wu Yun’s, where it is used for cooking and heating.
The pile of coal that heats their home in winter is an unmistakable sign of what’s to come.
The shepherd’s life remains simple and raw - guided by the rhythms of the seasons and of the hardy sheep, shaggy cows and swift horses, able to withstand the -30C (-20F) temperatures and fiercely biting wind. But Xilinhot, an outpost 600 kilometers (373 miles) and a 12-hour train ride north of Beijing, is at the forefront of China’s energy economy. Just 30 meters (100 feet) below the family farm are the rich veins of the coal that fuel a nation.
Xilinhot is at the center of the Xilin Gol Grassland, one of China’s largest prairies and livestock production regions. As Circle of Blue first reported in 2006 and again in 2010, the Xilin Gol Grassland has suffered severe sand encroachment and desertification. But now the deliberate and unhurried lifestyle of pastoral farmers faces yet another hurdle.
Proven coal reserves tally 30 billion metric tons (33 billion short tons), while provincial and academic authorities say unproven reserves total to hundreds of billions of metric tons. Standing in the way of progress, however, is the region’s limited supply of fresh water. To combat this, there are big plans to bring water to the dry northlands to feed the thirsty mines. It is this scale of design and thinking - highly controversial, too - that underscores China’s water-energy challenge and the huge infrastructure that the nation is looking to put into place, starting in the cold and snow-blown fields of Xilin Gol Grassland.
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