The Environmental Problem China Can No Longer Overlook


China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is on a roll, pushing out action plans, regulations, and laws to address a number of its most pressing environmental challenges. Most recently, in mid-July it announced that it had submitted an action plan to the State Council to tackle one of the country’s least visible but most serious problems: soil contamination. Plans are also in the works for a new soil pollution prevention law in 2017.

Soil contamination has long been the poor stepchild of China’s environmental movement, lagging well behind air and water pollution in terms of government, and even non-government, attention and resources. Yet, over the past few years the issue has elbowed its way up near the top of Beijing’s environmental agenda. Two and half years ago, in February 2013, Chinese lawyer Dong Zhengwei requested that data on soil pollution be made public. At the time, the MEP rejected the request on the grounds that the data were a state secret. Other Chinese officials, however, were not as reluctant as their MEP colleagues to speak publicly about the issue. Just a few months later, in May, officials in Guangdong province announced that they had discovered excessive levels of cadmium in more than 150 batches of rice, most of which had come from outside the province. In addition, Guangdong province released its own data, which painted an even more dire situation than the national statistics: 28 percent of the Pearl River Delta’s soil and 50 percent of Guangzhou and nearby Foshan’s soil were contaminated. Later that year, as the New York Times reported, a vice minister of land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, stated publicly that eight million acres of China’s farmland (roughly equivalent to the size of Maryland) was so polluted that planting crops on it “should not be allowed.”

Finally, in April 2014, MEP released a report (using soil samples taken between 2005 and 2013) that stated that more than 16.1 percent of land and 19.4 percent of arable land was contaminated. While MEP was not willing to reveal a more detailed account of the type, degree, and location of the contamination, more data continue to be released. The National Environmental Monitoring Center, for example, reported that approximately 25 percent of the nearly 5,000 vegetable plots sampled throughout the country are polluted.

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Soil contamination, like air and water pollution, exacts a heavy economic and political toll on the Chinese people. In an excellent piece of investigative journalism, Chinese reporter He Guangwei explored the range of consequences, from public health to social unrest to loss of economic livelihood, for those involved in agricultural production. He notes, for example, that China produces at least twelve million tons of heavy metal-contaminated grain annually, with an economic cost of more than $3.2 billion. Reportedly, pollution cuts China’s harvest by ten billion kilograms every year. Farmers he interviewed often knew that their vegetables were planted in soil “polluted with cadmium, lead, and mercury,” and as a result, rarely ate local produce. Yet acknowledging that crops are contaminated can be a death sentence for local economies. Farmers in Hunan province, for example, suffered mightily in the wake of revelations that much of their rice had levels of cadmium at least five times the permitted limit.

For Beijing, soil contamination also plays into the perennial fear over food security. Claremont McKenna scholar Minxin Pei has noted that as of 2012, China had 334 million acres of arable land—if 66 million acres of it is polluted, as is estimated by the government, the total amount of arable land would be well below the 300 million acre red line Beijing has articulated.

Actually addressing the problem will not be an easy matter. The sources of soil contamination are varied and plentiful. In addition to the heavy metal pollutants produced by mining and a range of industrial processes, antibiotics have emerged as a significant challenge. Researchers at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported that China consumed 162,000 tons of antibiotics in 2013—more than half the global total—roughly one-third of which ended up in water and soil. The average Chinese river boasts two and a half times the concentration of antibiotics as in the United States. Landfills are another source of soil contamination. According to a Caixin news report in June 2015, in one Beijing village, 45,000 cubic meters of garbage reached five meters into the ground and mixed with groundwater; there are more than 1,000 such “unregulated landfills” around the capital.

Remediation of contaminated soil can also be costly and time-consuming. There needs to be a clear determination of who is responsible and who will pay, an adequate monitoring system, and appropriate incentives for actually remediating the soil. Some potential remediation techniques may also not be appropriate for large parts of the country. For example, soil washing, which requires large amounts of water and then water treatment facilities to treat the contaminated water, may be out of Beijing’s reach given its water pollution and scarcity problems.

Thus far Beijing has not matched its growing concern with adequate resources. It has pledged approximately $450 million in the next three years to help 30 Chinese cities tackle heavy metal pollution, but as the Ministry of Land and Resources has noted, the land treatment industry “accounts for less than 1 percent of the total output in the environmental protection sector,” whereas in other countries, it surpasses 30 percent. Moreover, few Chinese companies are equipped to handle remediation. According to one Chinese expert, of 500 land treatment firms, “only around 20 firms have practical experience and less than ten are really competent.” Even advanced industrialized countries, with strong environmental regulations and enforcement, have not addressed the problem fully. Germany, for example, which has as many as 15 steps involved in the process of merely determining whether remediation is needed, estimates that there are still as many as 300,000 contaminated sites throughout the country, of which about 10-15 percent require remediation.

The United Nations has declared 2015 the “International Year of Soils,” and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has taken the first step toward meeting its own soil pollution challenge by drafting an action plan. The real test, however, will arise over the next year or two when China’s top leaders signal whether they are prepared to invest the significant human and financial resources necessary to meet the goals of the action plan and address the growing popular demand to protect the country’s environment and safeguard the people’s health.

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