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An Unholy Trinity: Xinjiang’s Unhealthy Relationship With Coal, Water, and the Quest for Development

09 November, 2017
Meredith Peng

A desert road near Kuqa. Photo credit Meredith Peng, 2016.

Sitting shotgun in a beat-up vehicle en route to Tashkorgan a small town in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, I soaked in the magnificence—or what I could see through the dust-coated windshield. The unpaved and rocky road, which carves through the precipitous Karakorum pass, will be (when finished) a key link in China’s “One Belt One Road”  plan to connect China to Pakistan. China’s ambitious plans for westward expansion will demand an almost inconceivably enormous amount of energy and resources, and water-scarce Xinjiang will play a central role. With plans like these, how can China meet its water needs?

I asked the driver what he thought about all this construction. “Of course it is damaging to the environment. But there is nothing we can do about it,” he said. Only government policy could solve the looming problems, but “environmental issues are long-term problems, but the political cycle is short-term.” It takes political will to impose pollution taxes and regulations that could inflict short-term pain for long-term gain (e.g., better public health outcomes, more efficient energy systems). A sense of hopelessness hung in the dust-filled air. 

Coal mining station at Tianshan Mountains, Urumqi, 2016, courtesy of Meredith Peng A stretch of desert lined with telephone poles, 2016, courtesy of Meredith Peng A bird’s eye view of Urumqi, seen from the plane. Patches of green can be seen amidst vast plots of desert, 2016, courtesy of Meredith Peng

Crisis in the Works

China is facing one of the world’s most acute energy crises. Most of China’s water resources, population, and energy consumption are concentrated in the eastern part of the country, while energy resources are located in the northwest. Northwestern China is extremely water stressed, as water demand, particularly from coal mining and production, far outstrips supply.  The impacts of climate change on ecologically fragile Xinjiang and other regions in western China exacerbate the pressures on energy production, which is water intense. Due to rising temperatures, glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains—the main source of water in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin—are rapidly melting with little chance to replenish. As the country’s increasing energy demand increases its water use, it risks irreversible environmental degradation, which would impact not only China’s western region, but the entire country.

 All That Glitters Is Coal

Due to its abundance of coal, and China’s commitment to reducing its use, Xinjiang is also at the forefront of “coal conversion,” a process that converts coal into synthetic natural gas, fertilizers, and other chemicals. While coal plants on China’s eastern seaboard have been shutting down as efforts to meet pollution standards intensify, the number of coal conversion plants have been increasing in water-scarce, resource-rich areas such as Xinjiang. Local governments are able to brand synthetic natural gas created from coal conversion plants as “clean energy” or “new energy” because the process produces relatively lower amounts of particulate emissions.

Many Chinese experts and politicians have voiced concerns about the surge in new coal conversion plants, citing their harmful effects on the environment as well as low return on investment. According to Li Junfeng, the director general of China’s NDRC’s National Center of Climate Change Strategy Research, “it is extremely irrational to develop coal-to-gas technology,” since emissions from coal-to-gas are “270 percent greater than [that of] natural gas from traditional sources.” Greenpeace East Asia reported that the 50 coal-to-gas plants that were slated to be built in China would produce about 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year—which is equal to one eighth of China’s current total carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the technology uses 6 to 10 liters of water per cubic meter of synthetic natural gas, equaling around 10 times the amount of water needed for coal production.

Coal mining station at Tianshan Mountains, Urumqi, 2016, courtesy of Meredith Peng

Social Instability and Environmental Degradation

Coal conversation and its potential threats to the region have spurred social unrest. In 2014 200 citizens protested the opening of a new coal conversion plant in Oriliq, Xinjiang, citing health and water quality consequences. The environment is culturally significant to the Uyghurs, a marginalized group in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs’ traditional water management structures, such as the ancient karez irrigation systems found in Turfan, use natural processes to store water and irrigate crops. Religious beliefs and cultural traditions in everyday life are associated with karez, including social status, which was accorded based on water ownership rights in the system. According to Shalamu Abudu, a hydrology expert at Texas A&M Agrilife Research Center, “the karez is a symbol of our civilization. It is something we feel very emotional about.”

Turpan’s growing population, as well as the growth of agriculture and the development of oil fields in the area, has increased water demand. New deep wells have met the demand, but reduced the amount in the shallow aquifer, lowering the water table and drying up the karez. Efforts to control flash floods by building dams also damages karez by reducing the recharge of aquifers. By 2003, only 614 of more than 1,784 karez in Xinjiang were still flowing, and their numbers continue to decline. The destruction of the karez system also represents the disappearance and destruction of thousands of years of culture underpinning this marginalized group.

Poor Han Chinese are migrating to the region, drawn by jobs in the growing agricultural and industrial sectors, where they face similar challenges in water quality and adverse health effects from pollution. This is by virtue of both economic status and the particularities of the guanxi system in Xinjiang, which depends on connections, favoring the bingtuan—the original migrants to Xinjiang over the new wave of Han migrants.

A bird’s eye view of Urumqi, seen from the plane. Patches of green can be seen amidst vast plots of desert, 2016, courtesy of Meredith Peng

A Sustainable Future—or an Insecure One?

Addressing the water-energy nexus the water-energy nexus through innovative approaches to resource management will improve China’s capacity to deal with water shortages. First, China needs better systems for data collection and monitoring. The current systems are insufficient, decentralized, and outdated; much research relies on estimates. The government will need to centralize the water management system, build water quality monitoring stations, and invest in the resources and human capital necessary to manage it. Beijing could use this system to hold local governments accountable for equitable water quotas, and provide performance rewards based on water quality, relative water demand, and robustness of water delivery systems.

The government should move towards creating a sustainable and water-efficient economy in Xinjiang. Steps could include short-term painful job cuts in the agricultural sector, where cotton—a water-intensive crop—is king. It could also mean investing in technologies to optimize energy use and promote cleaner energy, including reducing coal conversion. Investing in clean energy—often at a large, upfront cost—would be a major signal from Beijing that it is taking this nexus seriously.  While these steps will be painful in the short term, they are essential to the creation of a more adaptive, sustainable, and equitable society in Xinjiang in the long term.

Finally, more fine-tuned solutions need to be inclusive of all the stakeholders in the region. The government will have to address the concerns of the Uyghurs, the Han migrants, and the bingtuan to maintain social stability—which is essential to meeting the development goals in western China.

Xinjiang figures heavily in the calculus of China’s development strategy as it marches westward. More sustainable development in the region could not only avoid environmental disaster, it could also preserve regional stability.

BlogA New Climate for Peace
New Security Beat

Tags adaptation biofuels China China Environment Forum climate change coal community-based cooperation development economics


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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