Photographer: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Coal Industry Seen Depleting Water Supplies of 1 Billion People

  • Industry uses water equal to needs of 1.2 billion: Greenpeace
  • China's plans for more coal plants may worses crisis

The coal industry is putting global water supply at risk by using enough to meet the basic needs of more than 1.2 billion people, according to a study commissioned by Greenpeace.

Coal-fired power plants and miners account for about 7 percent of global water withdrawals and the share is set to double in the next 20 years, the environmental group wrote in a report. Some 44 percent of coal-fed plants and almost half of those planned in the future are in regions with high levels of water stress, Greenpeace said.

QuickTake Confronting Coal

“The whole life cycle of coal-generated electricity has enormous impacts on freshwater systems,” Greenpeace said. “In many countries, the coal industry creates one of the largest demands on freshwater resources.”

The coal industry consumed 22.7 billion cubic meters of water in 2013. Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are among banks that have promised to stop or scale back support for coal projects as environmental groups look to move countries beyond fossil fuels. The commodity’s appeal is also being hurt by power plants using cheap natural gas and tougher emissions standards.

Coal Plants

China, India and the U.S. have most coal plants in areas where water withdrawal is happening faster than it can be replenished, while the two Asian countries have the most new capacity planned in such water-stressed areas, according to the study.

China’s proposed coal-usage cap of 4.2 billion metric tons by 2020 needs to be more ambitious to avoid a deepening water crisis in the nation’s driest coal-industry areas, the group said.

In 2013, power plants accounted for 84 percent of the coal industry’s water usage, with coal and lignite mining making up the rest, the report showed. Total water withdrawal was pegged at 281 billion cubic meters.

Coal-fired power capacity totaled 1,811 gigawatts by the end of 2013, with another 1,300 gigawatt proposed, according to the report. Governments could achieve major water savings by retiring coal stations older than 40 years, as well as replacing plants with solar or wind power, the group said.

“Renewable energy requires almost no water to generate electricity,” Greenpeace said. “Switching from coal to renewable energy is one of the most effective and actionable ways to save water, and ensure clean water supply.”

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