China's Air Pollution Control Action Plan has ambitious goals—cutting air particulates and coal consumption—but it may create unintended problems for the country’s water supply.
The Plan aims to reduce particulate matter in the North China Plain by 25 percent and reduce coal’s share of the national energy mix to 65 percent by 2017. One of the plan’s key recommendations is to replace coal with cleaner natural gas, including synthetic natural gas (SNG) converted from coal. Converting coal to natural gas, however, is an extremely water-intensive process. One cubic meter of SNG requires 6 to 10 liters (1.58-2.6 gallons) of freshwater to produce1. So in an attempt to control urban air pollution in the east, China might jeopardize its water supplies elsewhere.
Using WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, we overlaid the locations of these approved SNG plants on our water stress maps to assess the potential water risks. Eleven of the approved plants, eight from Xinjiang Province and three from Inner Mongolia, are located in catchments that do not have major reservoirs. They also face medium-to-high or high risk from seasonal variability. So, in the dry season, those plants may have to reduce production capacity or experience temporary outages due to the lack of resilience in water supply.