Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - An appalling loss of life is the stark price China is paying to satisfy its huge demand for coal, with up to 20,000 workers estimated to die every year as they toil to fuel the country's booming economy.
With gross domestic product growing by more than nine per cent a year, China depends on coal for 70 per cent of its energy and needs all the "black gold" it can get. Production was pushed last year to 1.7 billion tonnes, up 54 per cent from 1999. Despite this, energy shortfalls reached crisis levels this year, with power cuts commonplace. While coal is the cause of immense environmental misery in China, it is also the cause of untold human suffering with safety often sacrificed in the drive for money and high output.
Official statistics show more than 7,200 coal miners were killed in gas explosions, floods, cave-ins and other accidents last year, making China's mines by far the world's deadliest. But the real figure could be around 20,000, labour rights groups say, as many deaths are covered up or fail to enter the official statistics for various reasons.
The dangers were once again highlighted by a gas explosion in Shaanxi province Sunday that killed 25 miners and left 141 missing and feared dead.
Workers who survived have begun blaming management for compromising safety. Residents living in the Chenjiashan coal mine compound said workers had complained of high gas levels as early as two days before the accident. Mine bosses, however, kept the miners working to reap profits from the high demand, as major power plants run low on supplies due to transport bottlenecks.
Experts said most accidents in China's mines were due to poor safety standards and the government's failure to enforce regulations.
The government says it closed down 60,000 small mines in the last decade because they were considered unsafe and inefficient. But the soaring demand has led to many being reopened.
Corrupt officials, meanwhile, often turn a blind eye to unsafe mines in return for kickbacks. A vast majority of China's 28,000 mines are also privately owned and hard for the government to control.
Coal production is increasing by an average of 15 per cent a year, making China a top producer and feeding not only China's energy needs, but also its huge appetite for steel in its construction boom.
The government has invested large amounts of money in hydropower, building large dam projects, and plans to step up construction of nuclear power plants, but analysts said those sources of energy will still account for a fraction of China's power output and the country will rely on coal for years to come.
Coal production is expected to reach 1.9 billion tonnes this year. While Chinese officials acknowledge that more needs to be done to improve safety for miners, for the estimated 3.4 million people employed in state-owned mines, and many others in private mines, those promises are old news. Despite the dangers, they risk their lives for their jobs, seeing no better option.
Many travel from the poorest corners of the country to work in mining areas like Shaanxi, earning as little as 1,000 yuan a month a pittance but much more than they could make from farming.
They are resigned to the fact that they could die doing their job.
Major mine accidents in the year 2004:
November 20: 65 die in a massive iron mine fire in Shahe, Hebei
November 13: 19 die in a gas blast in Chengdu, Sichuan
November 11: 33 die in a blast in Pingdingshan, Henan
October 20: 148 die in an explosion in Xinmi, Henan
June 15: 22 die in a blast at the Huangling No 1 mine in Shaanxi
April 30: 36 die in an explosion in Linfen, Shaanxi
March 1: 28 die in an explosion in Jiexiu, Shaanxi
February 23: 37 die in a blast in Jixi, Heilongjiang
February 11: 25 die in a blast in Liupanshui, Guizhou