Inner Mongolia sinking under the weight of its mining industry

By Yan Shuang Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-20 1:40:04


Grassland at a coal mine in Baorixile, Inner Mongolia, is dotted with pits left by ruthless exploration over the past few decades. Photo: Lu Guang, courtesy of Greenpeace
Grassland at a coal mine in Baorixile, Inner Mongolia, is dotted with pits left by ruthless exploration over the past few decades. Photo: Lu Guang, courtesy of Greenpeace

The typical traveler imagines Inner Mongolia as an endless field of grassland, punctuated by mountains and the occasional yurt. In recent times however, swathes of the remote region have begun to look pocked and cratered like the surface of the moon.

Pictures of the Hulunbuir region that have been posted online show that like the lunar landscape, Inner Mongolia also has a dark side.

Soaring demand for minerals is threatening both the environment and locals. Mines are expanding, underground water is being over-extracted, and coal power plants as well as chemical plants are being established across the once-quiet area.

Now the grasslands are sinking, pollution is rising and desertification threatens the area's delicate ecological balance.

Industry vs environment

As locals raise complaints against polluting industries that drain their water resources, the government has announced that a plan to expand coal exploitation in the region will boost the number of factories and be a major source of local government revenue.

Locals are already worried about the effects of mining on their area, but officials have told them they shouldn't speak to the media. One herder, who spoke to the Global Times on condition of anonymity, said that she started herding in the Hulunbuir area in 1996. She said that she has lost more than 50 sheep and 16 cattle this year due to the expansion in mining. "Some of my animals died from pollution," she said. "Some by accident, either at drainage areas near the open mines, or they fell into the pits left behind by the mines."

The pits she refers to are those left by mine owners, who began prospecting throughout the area in the 1990s. Hundreds of small coal mines used to operate around the Baorixile township of Hulunbuir over 10 years ago, before bigger companies acquired them.

But when those companies left in early 2000, during a national regulation campaign, thousands of pits were left behind for residents to deal with, many still remaining to this day.

The area that is now sinking covers 2.24 square kilometers, according to reports from environmental NGO Greenpeace.

Local land resources authorities said they've been trying to fill the pits and have already invested 60 million yuan over the past 10 years in grassland restoration, according to a China Enterprise News report.

In addition to this, the Inner Mongolia regional government plans to introduce a regulation curbing industrial projects with high water consumption, and the illegal extraction of underground water, according to a China Chemical Industry News report in July.

The regional government also put in place a new regulation earlier this year, which stipulates that any one who conducts construction, mining or other energy exploration projects on grasslands should pay a grassland restoration fee.

In an effort  to restore the area, the government announced in August last year that they would spend a total of 27.5 billion yuan ($4.35 billion) from 2011 to 2015 on grasslands environmental protection. 

Spiral of degradation

Dongming village, located in Hulunbuir's Chenbaerhu county, is one of the villages surrounded by industrial establishments that emit heavy pollution. Villagers have been told that they must leave the area next year, because their village has been designated as an industrial district.

According to Greenpeace, villagers in Dongming are struggling with pollution caused by the coal mines, which compete for limited water resources. The underground water table has been dropping due to the over-extraction from coal mines, creating serious problems when it comes to daily life and the feeding of livestock.

"The coal mines started paying me for my livestock losses several years ago. But who will make up for the losses when the grassland is gone?" the anonymous herder asked. Other villagers, who the Global Times managed to talk to, also said that the local government had been instructing them not to talk to the media.

The area of grassland affected by degradation, desertification and salinization in Hulunbuir had reached 39,822 square kilometers by the early 21st century, accounting for 40 percent of the total grassland coverage in the city, according to the Grassland Bureau of Supervision and Management in Hulunbuir. The city's grassland has been degrading at a rate of 2 percent each year and currently at least 73.5 percent of the grassland in Inner Mongolia has degraded, according to media reports. In addition to Hulunbuir, other areas such as Xilingol and Horqin also face similar problems, the report said.

"Some villagers have been protesting against the polluting companies and asking the government for compensation. But it's difficult for officials to give up industry development, given the huge tax income from these industries," said Sun Qingwei, a media officer with Greenpeace.

The motivation for coal exploration in Inner Mongolia is not just driven by the local government's desire for revenue.

According to a five-year-plan by the National Energy Administration, the Chinese government has planned 14 coal exploration bases and 16 coal-electricity bases to be built in China's western regions by 2015, in locations including Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Ningxia. Hulunbuir is endowed with significant coal resources, which will be needed for these projects.

The amount already located in the area exceeds 100 billion tons, six times the total amount in Liaoning, Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces combined.

Water worries

However, experts have indicated that the size of the plans and the scarce water resources in areas like Hulunbuir and Xinjiang mean that a water crisis may lie on the horizon.

Coal-related industries in western regions will need around 9.98 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, equivalent to one-fourth of the total volume from the Yellow River available for allocation during a normal year.

"The government understands how much energy and resources we need (for the 12th Five-Year Plan). However environmental efforts, which should be made at the same time as we develop industries, are being omitted," said Song Xianfang, a researcher with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The government should assess different coal and electricity facilities based on their water requirements, and re-evaluate the feasibility and scale of planned energy projects based on local water conditions, Song said.

"Mining and chemical projects that would lead to serious impacts on the environment or cause a water crisis should be modified," he told the Global Times.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Environmental Protection should look into the energy consumption and water problems caused by coal mining while making environmental impact assessments on the development of China's western regions, he suggested.

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