The border zone where the Great Wall divides the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is coal country. Not far below the surface is the Shenfu Dongsheng coalfield, the seventh largest coal deposit in the world and potentially the most profitable.
Datong coal mine
Coal is the fuel that powers China’s phenomenal economic growth. The country’s coal consumption has increased almost 15% annually in recent years, and coal supplies almost two-thirds of its energy needs. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see China’s energy future, and that future is black.
The vision for tomorrow
A more realistic version
But if coal is important to the prospects of China as a whole, well, it’s everything in the mining valleys where we walked in northern Shaanxi. There’s not a lot of water in northern Shaanxi and it’s too hilly to irrigate effectively, so the agriculture’s pretty marginal. That means that coal is just about the only game in town. Almost every village is a mining village, and those few jobs that aren’t in the mines or the coal-fired power plants are in the businesses that service the mines and the power industry. Most of the traffic on the roads consists of massive trucks carrying coal between the mines and the power plants or distribution centres. Most of the young people we spoke to in the region who are going off to university are getting their degrees in mining engineering or a related field.
A truck stop between Fengzhen, Inner Mongolia and Datong, Shanxi
Up from Shanghai for a mine inspection
There are also smaller, informal economies that revolve around the coal industry. At the big truck stops, small armies of men gather to wait for pieces of coal to drop from the trucks as they take off; they then collect these and presumably sell them. On the more remote roads that get less traffic you can see older men and women walking along with old seed bags, gathering the bits that fall to the roadside on a much smaller scale, probably for personal use.
Men rushing to collect the scraps
Waiting for the next truck
While the mines obviously bring jobs with them, it seemed to us that life was pretty tough in the area, even by Northern China standards. Everything, and we mean everything, from the roads to the people to the sparrows to the sheep, was coated in soot. It was impossible to spend even a few hours outside without looking like a chimneysweep.
Sixteen tons, whaddya get, another day older and deeper in debt . . .
A typical roadside scene
As we’ve mentioned before, we found people noticeably less friendly in coal country than elsewhere. We don’t know why, but one guess is that because many mining jobs are filled by workers migrating in from elsewhere, levels of trust within communities are lower than in more stable villages. Certainly the number of vicious, unchained attack dogs guarding homes would support that.
We wanted a photo of an unchained dog, but when you’re fending off a loose, half-crazed German Shepherd with a walking stick it’s tough to get off a shot
Then there’s the pollution. The statistics are grim enough on a global and national level. China is about to pass the US as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (though of course China comes nowhere near threatening the status of Australia and the US as the per capita greenhouse pollution champs). And air pollution, again largely from coal, accounts for over 400,000 (yes, that’s almost half a million) premature deaths in China per year.
But the local pollution impacts are especially nasty. When you consider that we were coughing up black phlegm after a few days in the region, you can imagine what it might be like to live there (and how damaging the coal dust must be to young, vulnerable lungs).
Two kids next to a New Year’s coal pyre
A lovely roadside stream of ?????
To add to the list of horrors, China’s coal mining industry is far and away the most dangerous in the world. According to official statistics, about 5000 to 6000 people die every year in mining accidents; independent estimates put the figure at 10,000 to 20,000. Although occupational safety standards in a poor country like China are bound to be different from those in the West, such a high accident rate is hardly inevitable. The death rate per million tonnes of coal produced in China is about 150 times that in Australia; the fatality rate in India, a considerably poorer country, is only 9% of China’s (if you believe the Chinese stats, which nobody does).
But hey, if it’s just all too hard for China’s coal mine owners to invest in modern safety equipment and practices, maybe putting up a slogan will do the trick.
Safety in production, unrestricted sales!