China's hunger for coal leaves three million on ground ready to collapse
Published 03/09/2011 | 05:00
To keep its glittering skylines alight, China now uses more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. But voracious mining has hollowed out vast tracts of the north of the country, leaving three million people living on ground that could collapse at any moment.
In the mountains of China's coal belt, locals have lived for years with choking clouds of soot and the continual roar of mines, digging for 24 hours a day. Now they face being buried alive as China tries to extract every last nugget of coal from beneath them.
Shanxi Huang Jia Po is a village on the edge. For centuries, 500 farmers have lived here in Shanxi province.
But the children of the farmers will have to live somewhere else, because it is only a matter of time before the village falls into the honeycomb of mining tunnels below.
Standing in his courtyard, Lu Linhu (38) points to a 30ft deep hole that has opened up in the cement outside his front door. Behind him, wide cracks have appeared in the walls and ceiling of his bedroom.
"We cannot really sleep properly any more," he said. "At night, we can feel the shaking of the ground when they use dynamite in the mine. And when it rains, the water comes flooding in through the cracks."
At the base of the hill, about 400ft away, fleets of 60-tonne trucks shuttle back and forth, carrying fuel to the coal-fired power stations that still provide more than two thirds of China's electricity.
The local government reported earlier this year that excessive mining had made an area of 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of Wales, unstable and dangerous. But in the trade-off between the millions of peasants who live here and China's booming economy, there was likely to be only one winner.
At Liulin, 94 families have already had to abandon their homes and move down the mountain after their farmland sheared away beneath them.
At the top of the mountain, miners said they were pulling 900,000 tonnes of coal a year from the ground. "Why would we stop? There is still coal underneath," one shrugged.
For the villagers of Pangpangta it is already too late. At the beginning of June more than 200 houses collapsed.
Of the 700 people who lived in Pangpangta, 500 have left. The remaining villagers are too old and too poor to leave.
Li Lianji, the former head of coal industry research at Shanxi's Academy of Science, said: "The problem is that Shanxi has soft soil.
"The only solution is to fill up the mines after digging, but that doubles the cost. And at the moment, as we build the economy, China cannot afford for coal to double in price." (© Daily Telegraph, London)