Dec. 04, 2023
Investigating a Desert Golf Course

August 14, 2011

The "Economic Half Hour" will continue to focus on water problems. Two days ago we reported on the building of a golf course in Yulin, a desert city in Shaanxi province which faces extreme water shortages. Construction has finished on a second 18-hole golf course that will soon be ready for use. A 36-hole course in accordance with international standards is also being planned. It will use 5 million tons of water every year. Let us take a closer look at these desert golf courses.

At the end of June, our reporter visited the Damolutaosha golf club in Yulin, Shaanxi province. In the midst of yellow sand, this hidden oasis of the club is only a 15 minute drive away from the Yulin airport. Our reporter met with the salesperson under the guise of someone interested in obtaining a membership. The employee first showed our reporter the practice range and soon a car was ready for a tour.

Once in the car, our reporter saw the true colors of this kind of golf course, the only desert course in all of China and South East Asia. Its lawns are neatly pruned, the fairways meander along and the grass patches around the holes are smooth and green. In the distance one can vaguely make out some cacti, but the course itself has an imposing look. What they are opening is truly an international 18-hole course.

Natural patches of desert and man-made green grass intertwine here. Walking along the fairways, one sees automatic sprayers everywhere, watering the lawns. The caddie explains that the temperature is very high at noon so to maintain every square inch of grass, it has to be watered to lower the temperature. The lawn needs to be watered three times a day.

The geological structure of the desert allows water to run off easily. So how can the club keep the water from draining away? The caddie tells our reporter that they have set up an underground plastic net to prevent the water from trickling down.

He also says that the best way to make the grass grow is to irrigate continuously. Even outside of the golf course, there are workers watering the area to ensure the aesthetics of the course. This precious resource is used without any restrictions. Keeping in mind the desert surroundings, how can they use so much of it?  More importantly, where does this water actually come from?

The salesperson claims they use water from the nearby coal mine. To dispel the doubts of our journalist, he says the management has this under control. Apparently there is no need to worry.

According to what we found out, the golf club opened for business in 2009. It occupies more than 2,000 mu (133 hectares) of land. Close to 200 million yuan have been invested in it, and it is located in the ecological sand dune area of Yulin city. It is also the largest golf course in Shaanxi province. The registration fee for new members is 188 thousand yuan, while the price of a lifetime membership is 398 thousand yuan. Enrollment has been extremely popular: not long ago the club increased its fees again and also set a quota for the number of new memberships. At the time of reporting, there were only two membership cards left.

That there is so much money to be made in such a short time explains why this extremely wasteful golf course exists on the edge of the desert near the arid city of Yulin. Our reporter also learned about the second 18-hole golf course that has just been completed and will soon be ready for business.

Yulin is located in the north part of Shaanxi, where the Ordos desert and the loess plateau of Northwest China intersect. The ecology is extremely frail there. Due to the immense quantities of water the golf club uses, the ground water level has been dropping rapidly. This decline in the groundwater level kills the vegetation that holds the soil together in the windy desert, worsening the ecological situation even more. In a nearby village, our reporter saw the direct impact of the construction of the golf course on the daily lives of the farmers.

The villagers say: "The more water you pump, the dryer the ground, and the deeper the wells, the less water there is to be found." With the construction of the golf course, the villagers have noticed an obvious deepening of the wells and a more severe shortage of water. Even irrigating the crops has become a problem. Originally it took one hour to water, but now after two hours the crops are still not fully irrigated.

Our reporter also learned that the formal procedures governing the construction of a golf course in the desert are easily ignored. This course started construction, finished construction and started operating right under the nose of the local government. An even larger mystery is where the tons of water come from every day. A famous microblogger by the name of Ma Xiaoqiang asks: "in the past many farmers in the loess plateau only showered thrice in their lifetime. Once at birth, once at marriage and once at death. How can those lawns be watered three times a day?" Our investigative journalist can shed some light on this question.

The Damolutaosha golf club is located in Yulin, Xiaojihan forestry management area, which is a park devoted to promoting desert ecology. At the Yulin forestry station, our reporter found the office that supervises construction projects in the desert area. Xue Jinsheng, the office director, said that construction on the golf course only started in 2008. In reality the company’s initial plan was to establish a sporting ground. During the construction they started to consider economic benefits and a golf course was built, without reporting to any officials and following no procedure whatsoever.

The original plan for a sporting complex included a basketball court, a tennis court and others. Now it is just a golf course. And the local government has been aware of this since last year. Construction started approximately three years ago, the reporter pointed out to Director Xue, so why is there still no sign of supervision or inspection? Director Xue answered that after discovering the golf course in the latter half of last year, they verbally instructed the company to stop construction.

When Beijing issued a directive in April of this year, the local government informed their superiors in the provincial development and reform commission about the golf course. Since then they have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Director Xue says that after the provincial cadres investigated the matter, they demanded its termination. The company could either irrigate the lawns or finish the construction of roads. If they did not follow the procedures, the golf course project in the ecological desert park would be cancelled completely.

After the August 10 news broadcast that exposed the ongoing construction, the city of Yulin responded by halting construction and carrying out reforms. Director Xue said that all the water used by the golf course is provided by the nearby coal mine. To investigate whether that really is the case, our reporter traveled to the golf course again.

Manager Li Yuhuai of the Shaanxi Hengtaiweiye company confirms the words of Director Xue: the water is provided free of charge by the coal mine.

Manager Li showed our reporter the precipitating tank and told him that the water discharged by the coal mine goes through a treatment plant where the toxic elements are handled so they settle in the tank. Then the water is pumped through two pipelines and arrives downstream at the golf course.

In order to investigate this claim our reporter also went to the water treatment facility. The person in charge at the plant said that they not only use the treated water themselves, they also provide it to nearby farmers and to the ecological desert park. The current output of waste water from the coal plant has reached a daily volume of 12,000 cubic meters.

The director of the environmental protection office of the Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd, Ma Jingguo says that their activities yield about 1,200 cubic meters of waste water every hour and about 20,000 cubic meters every day.

Director Ma also presented to the reporter the company’s contract with the ecological park. The Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield company is responsible for constructing the pipelines and should ensure that the water provided meets the quality requirements for a second category C level rating for "landscape water". The ecological park in its turn provides the foundations for the pipelines and a tank for the waste water at no cost.

Director Ma tells our reporter that the flow of water is rather large, and the use of water rather low. So under these circumstances they can keep providing a free water source to their users.

The golf course appears to be merely using the water from the coal mine for a second time. From the looks of it, it is a win-win strategy, but is this really the case? Not long after talking to Director Ma, our reporter traveled to a village 3 kilometers away from the coal mine.

The reporter found that there was a large area of vacant land in the village. The land that was mainly suitable for farming was overgrown with weeds. Why did those villagers leave such a large area of land unused?

The villagers said the land was used for agriculture until 2008. Because of coal mining, the sides of village wells cracked, and the water was lost. Their wells became useless because they were only about ten meters deep compared to the 180-meter coal mining well.

Yulin County belongs to an arid area; groundwater has become the most important water resource for local farmland. The villagers told us that about four or five years ago, reserves of groundwater declined rapidly because of coal mining by the Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield company, and their village was the most seriously affected area. Their farmland is almost entirely abandoned now.

Villagers said that because of the water shortage that started in 2007, more than 300 mu (20 hectares) of arable land was abandoned and there was no land to plough or sow.

In recent years, the volume of wastewater discharged daily by the mine has increased from 6000 cubic meters to 12000 cubic meters, and this figure will continue rise with the coal mine’s continued operation.

Director Ma, of the environmental protection office from the Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd, told us that the hourly wastewater discharge from the mine was 400 to 500 cubic meters before 2009. Between that time and December 2009, it rose to 1,000 cubic meters, and now it has gone up to 1,200 cubic meters.

On the one hand, 12,000 cubic meters of waste water are discharged daily, and on the other hand, we witness neglected farmland because of the water shortage.

Reacting to this phenomenon, a villager said that reserves of groundwater were limited, and coal exploitation discharges waste water into rivers, which seriously pollutes the water.

Meager stalks of corn can be seen in a villager’s yard, with the leaves wilted by their lack of water. Before 2007, seven mu (0.46 hectare) of corn grew in his yard.

The villager told us helplessly that when there was no rain, his yard was so dry that no crops would grow. Now, only a few stalks are left behind in his yard, and they are watered by hand.

The fallow farmland is surrounded by a number of abandoned irrigation canals. Those canals used to have water flowing through them, but they are now overgrown with weeds. Villagers also told us that there was water in those channels in 2006.

Along with the now-defunct irrigation canals, there was also a pond that supplied irrigation water. Villagers said that years ago the water in the pond was waist deep. If you grab a handful of soil from that area now, it still has a hint of moisture, but the water in the pond has already disappeared.

The villagers told the reporter that there were three wells in their village, and they used to draw groundwater from them with pumps. The groundwater was pumped into channels and ponds for use in neighboring farmland. The reporter visited one of the wells with the villagers. He found it surrounded by weeds and abandoned channels.

 Starting five years ago, the villagers could not pump water from those wells because of the continuing coal mining. They dug a deeper well beside the one that was surrounded by weeds in 2007, but it soon ran out of water too.

The other two wells were faced with the same situation. Losing groundwater not only dried the ponds, channels, and farmland of the villagers who lived there, but also had great impact on each family’s twice-yearly harvest and economic situation. Thus, many people in that village had no choice but to go out and find a job. However, those too old to work could only hope that the groundwater would reappear soon.

The influence of Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd’s mining on groundwater levels had already drawn the attention of relevant government departments. The villagers told our reporter that Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd had been ordered to stop many times, for various reasons such as water pollution and decreases in groundwater levels. “The Report on the Implementation of Yulin’s Urban Plans”, which was published on the local  government website ( in 2009, showed that once Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd’s coal mining plans were approved, their realization would bring unpredictable risks to city water safety and the eco-system. In June 2011, Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd was again instructed to stop mining mainly to protect the water supply and groundwater recovery in nearby Hongshi Gorge.

However, when the reporter went to the sewage treatment plant of the Shaanxi Zhongneng coal mine in Aug.11, they found that their pipes still discharged a steady flow of wastewater. According to local villagers, the drainage pipes were closed and opened over and over again.

While operating, the Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd signed a water-supply contract with the ecological forest park, which became an “environmental protection project”. Once coal mining stopped, the eco-park and its golf course would be threatened by the lack of water. Does this explain why the coal-mining went on for such a long time? As villagers’ crops withered, we had to ask why the company chose to supply to the golf course, instead of the nearby farmland. All of these questions remain mysteries.

Crops are not the only things whose water has been affected. Problems also arose for local villagers as their 15-meter-deep wells became dry and empty, and they could only rely on carriages to supply drinking water.

One family told us in order to solve the drinking water problem, they spent 10000 yuan digging a 70-meter well and used an electric pump to get water, but they are still uncertain how long this well will work.

Before leaving the village, the reporter found an old man herding his sheep near a patch of fallow farmland. The sheep seemed to enjoy their grass undisturbed, but the farmer's heart was not at ease at all.

The old man said the farmland used to yield about 1,500 kilograms of corn per year before the coal mine started operating, but now he makes his living only on sheep.

The villagers can only hope that groundwater will reappear and return to its normal level so that the fallow land can bring in a rich harvest.

However, drainage from the coal mine still goes to the forest, eco-park and golf course.

Director Ma, of the environmental protection office at Shaanxi Zhongneng Coalfield Co. Ltd, told us that the surrounding 200 miles of farmland could access water, and if needed, the company could build pipes and supply water to more and more distant farmland. According to the company, no one in the village has asked them for that kind of help.

However, in a village 3 km away from the coal mine, people still wish for the groundwater to reappear soon so that they can plant some crops.

A villager also said the coalfield needs water every minute of the day, and the company discharges water to other places, which has greatly affected villagers’ lives. And they had no way to express their suffering.

The mining company built pipes and offered water to the golf court free of charge. What was hidden behind those “free lunches”? Why didn’t the local government ask the company for a free supply of water to nearby villagers, instead of causing severe problems such as empty wells and deserted farmland? Why wasn’t the public water resource used to protect people’s lives, instead of the golf course? We all hope the local government will respond to these questions.

It is the view of “Economic Half-Hour” that strict enforcement of laws is the most important means to solve the above-mentioned issues.

Starting on the first day of August, the Financial Channel reported on this issue for 13 days, and it drew widespread attention. The relevant ministries and local government started to take corrective action against illegal water management. We hope the laws and inspections are something real and based on the principles that “there must be laws to go by, the laws must be observed and strictly enforced, and lawbreakers must be prosecuted”. There are laws and regulations governing water management, but there is no strong enforcement. China is in great need of water, so many people regard water as a profitable business. All of these ideas have led to a series of “water crises”. If local governments do not strengthen their regulation and law enforcement, the crises will become more severe.

The Central Water Conservancy Conference, which was held not so long ago, was the first water conservancy conference in the name of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China since the founding of the People’s Republic. The Central Committee showed its emphasis on water resource management. At the meeting, Chairman Hu Jintao made it clear that speeding up the reformation and development of water management was a major and urgent task for the country’s socialist modernization and for the development of the Chinese nation as a whole. The words “major”, “urgent”, “overall”, “national destiny” and “strategic task” were repeated throughout the conference, stressing the importance of water management.

We sincerely hope that local governments at all levels will learn from the conference, strengthen local laws and take good care of their water. We also hope that the central government will strictly check local governments’ behavior and stick to the principle that “there must be laws to go by, the laws must be observed and strictly enforced, and lawbreakers must be prosecuted”. Only by adopting a zero-tolerance attitude can we resolve these water crises.

The series of TV programs focusing on water crisis from the “Economic Half Hour” attracted a lot of attention and inspired heated discussion on the web. A microblogger named Qiu Hanya wrote on her Sina Blog that the "Economic Half Hour” opened her eyes when specialists commented that a further decrease of natural spaces in Beijing would lead to local flooding. Another blogger named Pisces Xu wrote on Sina that the decrease of green land and flooding in Beijing were driven by profit and interest.

Translated by: Mei Yunna and Laurens Bistervels
Proofread by: Laurens Bistervels
Edited by: Madelyn Finucane