Xilinhot is still waiting for a go-ahead from Beijing since submitting the proposal five years ago.
"This project is the first of its kind, so policymakers have to consider it carefully. But experts who came here to examine the project think it is doable," said a local official familiar with the proposed project. He asked to not to be identified, as he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
'What will happen to our children?'
If the Xilinhot project is approved and performs as anticipated, it could be expanded and extended another 2,800 kilometers. That means it would cross the rest of Inner Mongolia, run through northern Gansu province and reach to the western region of Xinjiang, where the gap between rising coal demand and diminishing freshwater supply is even wider.
While the seawater pipeline may supply sufficient water to process and produce coal in China's dry north, it is not a solution for another problem associated with coal mining.
To avoid mine collapses and other accidents, miners usually pump water from underground before extracting coal, resulting in a sharp drop of groundwater. Coal mines and coal-preparation facilities also produce acidic mine drainage that can leak into soil and contaminate groundwater.
The Chinese government has required coal mines to reuse groundwater. It also issued regulations to avoid -- or at least reduce -- water pollution caused by coal mining. But as with many other aspects of regulation in the country, enforcement is often a challenge.
About 15 kilometers away from Victory coal field, the biggest coal field in Xilinhot, a 34-year-old herdsman named Delige'er and his family saw their chief water resource -- a 16-meter deep well in the yard -- dry up one year after the mine started operating in 2007.
As time passed, the herdsman said that water in other wells became as dark as coffee, releasing a smell like a mix of sulfur and other chemicals.
To chase the shrinking freshwater supply, Delige'er has drilled 12 wells in the past few years. His current well is 120 meter deep, and sometimes fails to bring up water.
But this is still considered a good situation. Delige'er said herdsmen in this area once used shovels to dig their wells. Now, many aquifers have been depleted enough that many local families are without sufficient water, or can't afford to drill deeper. So they turn to distant neighbors daily to buy water.
"We still have water for now, but what will happen to our children?" said Delige'er, staring at a coal mine in the horizon.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500