The black, blasted landscape of Wuhai City sometimes looks more like the moon than Inner Mongolia. But this scene is becoming all too common across much of Northern China. China’s massive coal industry is not only polluting the air and water, but also fundamentally altering the surrounding landscape and communities.

By 2020, coal consumption in China is projected to increase by 30 percent, and already, 20 percent of water withdrawn in the country goes to coal mining, processing, and cooling of coal-fired power plants. The water intensity of the coal industry is a significant quandary for a country that is already facing a water scarcity crisis (water availability per capita is one-quarter the global average).

The situation is exacerbated by the geographic mismatch between China’s coal and water reserves. Like Wuhai, most of China’s coal bases are located in the water-stressed northwest region, but most of the water is in the south. For instance, Inner Mongolia holds 26 percent of China’s coal reserves but only 1.6 percent of its water. How will the government deal with this water-energy choke point, as it seeks to feed the growing appetite of the world’s second-largest economy?

Last week, the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in partnership with Greenovation Hub, a Chinese environmental NGO, brought together five American and four Chinese experts for the first China Water-Energy Team to help answer these and other questions about China’s water-energy nexus.

After meeting with policymakers, business leaders, NGO professionals, and students in Beijing, we traveled to two coal bases – Wuhai City and Yinchuan City, Ningxia Province – to see the Soviet-style complexes in action. In recent years, many small- and medium-sized coal power plants have been subsumed by large state-owned enterprises such as the Shenhua Group. Mining, processing, and industry all within close proximity on a grand scale. Condensed within the cities are open pit mines, coal-fired power plants, and coal-to-chemical plants.

In 2012, Wuhai City had a population of 548,000 and produced 38 million tons of coal, equivalent to almost 10 percent of China’s total production. Coal mining, coal-fired power plants, and coal-to-chemical processes are not only water-intensive, but also heavily polluting. Jia Shaofeng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told us that “widespread water pollution in China is a real crisis.” According to Jia, a whopping two-thirds of China’s surface water and half of the country’s groundwater are polluted. A recent Greenpeace study found that five coal power bases located along the Yellow River discharge more than 80 million tons of waste annually which ultimately flows into the river. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) approved 16 more large-scale coal power bases.

This short photo essay provides a snapshot into the pervasive environmental impact of these complexes, featuring Wuhai City and its surroundings.

Please read the whole essay on New Security Beat.