China’s worst drought in 50 years may add to its pollution problems, experts say, citing concerns that low water levels will reduce hydropower production and raise reliance on coal.
On Aug. 14, the UPI news agency reported that while China’s Yangtze River is normally at flood stage in late summer, the volume of water now entering the Three Gorges Reservoir to drive the world’s largest hydroelectric power project is about the same as during the February dry season.
And in the municipality of Chongqing, all power plants with reservoirs have stopped operations, according to an Aug. 29 report by the official Xinhua news agency.
While some southeast coastal provinces have been flooded by typhoons, other provinces are parched. Water shortages have spread over wide areas from China’s north to southwest.
If they build a new power plant, generally it’s going to be fueled by coal,
In interviews with Radio Free Asia, energy and environmental experts said this year’s drought is raising China’s reliance on coal and the risk of pollution.
Robert Ebel, former chairman of the energy program and now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that as the consumption of coal goes up, “so does pollution, because the coals that they burn in their generating plants are high in sulfur.”
“And the winds blow the pollution eastward toward Japan,” he added. “So Japan faces it, as well.”
Though China has promoted the use of cleaner-burning natural gas, some gas-fired power plants are idle because of high costs and shortages of fuel. China’s power producers now have no choice, Ebel said.
“They really don’t. If they build a new power plant, generally it’s going to be fueled by coal.”
And China’s water shortage means that coal is less likely to be washed, one of the only ways to reduce soot emissions when it is burned.
Ebel said that shortages of water may now be China’s most pressing resource problem. “Because you need water for every aspect of life. And if you don’t have it, you’ve got a real issue on your hands.”
Daniela Salaverry, China program associate at Pacific Environment, a nongovernmental organization based in San Francisco, said that China’s dependence on rainfall for hydropower and its willingness to pour huge investments into coal will mean greater problems with pollution in dry years.
China was already having trouble meeting its goals for reducing emissions, Salaverry said.
“What’s happening in China right now is that the momentum that’s been pushing them forward—whether it’s GDP growth or industrial development or exporting resources and materials—that demand is continuing to grow.”
Coal will “continue to be China’s go-to [fuel] for energy output,” Salaverry said.
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.