China has widened the scope of its anti-pollution efforts to include soil pollution for the first time.
A specific plan of action for the prevention and control of soil pollution will come into force during the period of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), and the nation’s first specific national law on the control and prevention of soil pollution is being drafted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
“The draft will be submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for discussion in 2017, and placed on the legislative agenda,” said Yuan Si, deputy director of the NPC’s environmental protection and resources conservation committee, speaking at a media briefing about the legislation on March 10.
Although China already has legislation covering air and water pollution, there is no law to prevent soil pollution, let alone any comprehensive and practical legal specifications, he said.
The first national survey of soil quality, jointly conducted by the ministries of environmental protection and land and resources in April 2014, revealed the gravity of the situation.
Contaminants were discovered in more than 16 percent of soil samples collected across 6.3 million square kilometers of China’s 9.6 million sqm, and farmland was found to have been hit particularly badly. The situation was far worse in the southern regions than in the north, and the levels contamination in major industrial zones, such as the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and the Northeast of the country, were higher than the national average.
Soil pollution can affect food safety, people’s standards of living and the country’s sustainable development. That means legislative support, for regulations similar to the regulations already in place to control and reduce air and water pollution, is urgently needed, Yuan said.
Chen Jining, minister of environmental protection, said the legislative process will be backed up by the Action Plan on Soil Pollution Prevention and Control, a national campaign targeting soil pollution, which is expected to be launched this year.
Speaking at a March 11 media briefing to introduce new measures to control air, water and soil pollution, Chen said the program took longer than expected to prepare, partly because of poor basic information about soil pollution.
“But we have introduced pilot programs to control soil pollution and restore quality in 10 provinces, and improved the warning systems in regions badly affected by heavy-metal pollution,” he said.
New binding targets
China’s war on pollution began in earnest in 2013, when an action plan was published to tackle air pollution, followed up last year by measures targeting contaminated water.
With the upcoming action plan on soil pollution, the country is taking steps to further raise the general quality of the environment by 2020.
Having promoted agricultural technologies in her village for more than 20 years, Qiu Xinghong, a national legislator, is calling for thorough surveys to be conducted into rural soil pollution, and for systematic efforts to control the deterioration of the land.
“Contamination along some rivers and in farmland has made the soil black and infertile,” said the 43-year-old from Jiexi county in Guangdong province, who is deputy head of the county’s agricultural technologies promotion center and an NPC deputy.
Because the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has contaminated the soil, Qiu expends time and effort every year to show farmers how to apply the correct amount to their land.
In addition, a number of small workshops that produce preserved plums, a local delicacy, and factories that make wires and cables have also discharged untreated sewage directly into local rivers, she said.
“The (provincial, city and county) governments have shut down a lot of polluting factories, but there’s still a lot to do with regard to the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides,” she added.
Qiu was not the only deputy at the recent two sessions to call for greater efforts to control soil pollution.
Tang Ming, a CPPCC National Committee member and professor of agriculture at the Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in Yangling, Shaanxi province, also submitted a proposal calling for tougher controls.
He cited data from the environmental and agriculture ministries that show that up to 2009, heavy-metal contamination of the soil caused reductions in grain yields and resulted in a loss of 2 billion yuan ($307 million), and that industrial wastewater was used to irrigate 1.4 million hectares of farmland, causing further contamination.
“Soil contaminated by heavy-metals poses a further risk to human health via the grain and polluted water,” he said.
“It’s time for governments to tackle soil pollution in the same way we curb air and water pollution.”
To achieve the aims of the plan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has reformed its administrative structure by eliminating two departments – pollution prevention and control, and pollutants emission control – and setting up three new offices to target air, water and soil pollution.
The reform will streamline the working process and make the efforts to tackle pollution more efficient, according to Chen, the minister.
Moreover, new, binding targets on pollution control have been listed in the five-year plan for the first time. They stipulate that by 2020 the number of days of good air quality in 338 cities must be more than 80 percent per year, In addition, the concentration of PM2.5 – particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, so small that it can enter the bloodstream – should be reduced by 18 percent in major cities by the same year.
The new regulations have been well-received by experts and the public.
Wu Shunze, deputy head of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning – a think tank – said the guideline is a signal that the country has shifted the focus of its environmental protection strategies, which is a major reform.
The binding targets will force governments at all levels to impose tougher regulations, and to improve efficiency in their efforts to reduce pollution, “but it’s only a start. To move forward, we will need follow-up plans to set more targets for governments,” he said.
Barbara Finamore, Asia director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental NGO, said the plan represents an important step forward in China’s war on pollution, and the most striking feature is the emphasis on enforcement.
“This (to realize the goals, standards and reforms set out in the plan) will require a strong regulatory approach, as well as building the capacity for enforcement and compliance at both the provincial and local levels,” she wrote in an e-mail exchange with China Daily.
Meanwhile, experts said the existing action plans on air and water pollution control and prevention are working as planned.
For example, China is making visible progress in controlling air pollution: last year, PM2.5 readings fell by more than 14 percent in 74 major cities, and the Pearl River Delta region achieved overall compliance with the national standard. The improvement in the air quality has been so pronounced that it has been observed by NASA satellites.
Progress has also been made in the control of water pollution. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has completed a wide-ranging survey of severely polluted rivers in urban regions and has set schedules for greater improvements.
“The current situations regarding air, water and soil pollution are different, yet connected with the sources of pollution,” said Yang Fuqiang, a senior analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who stressed that air and water pollution are far more visible than soil pollution, which means it often goes unnoticed as a result.
About 40 percent of the mercury in China’s air is the result of burning coal, and the poisonous element can fall to earth and contaminate soil and water, he said, adding that industries that rely on coal, such as mining, chemicals and power plants, can cause pollution during both extraction and processing.
The three types of pollution are interconnected, so governments should make coordinated efforts to tackle all three, and also take joint controls into consideration when formulating policies, he said.