No quick fix for China's polluted soil

Ada Kong says China's soil pollution problem has global ramifications and needs action at a regional level rather than through an overarching national approach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:47am

China showed the world that it can turn grey smog into blue sky like magic last November when Beijing hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Unlike air pollution, however, there are no quick-fixes for soil pollution.

Soils not only produce food, they filter water and store carbon; they are the cradle of life. Moreover, with 10cm of topsoil taking more than 2,000 years to form, soils are a non-renewable resource. The importance of the issue of soil pollution has been noted by the UN, which has marked 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Meanwhile, Global Soil Week was held last month in Berlin to raise public awareness and promote international collaboration.

In China, a recent national survey found that nearly one-fifth of arable land is polluted. With the largest food consumption in the world, China has every reason to take more progressive approaches to save its soils.

Since the 2013 cadmium rice scandal, in which 44 per cent of rice samples from Guangdong province were found to be contaminated with the carcinogenic metal element, debates on food safety and soil quality have received renewed attention, and the government has been forced to respond.

In 2014, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Land and Resources released a report on a national survey of soil conditions. It showed that 19.4 per cent of farmland has been polluted, an area larger than Britain, with lead and cadmium being the most common pollutants. China is on the verge of losing enough arable land to supply food for its own people.

In 2011, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a five-year plan which set goals to reduce heavy metal emissions by 15 per cent of 2007 levels by the end of 2015. While the full document is still a state secret, to many people's surprise, last December the ministry released a statement which named five provinces - Yunnan , Hunan , Inner Mongolia , Guizhou and Shaanxi - that are falling behind on their targets. We can expect tighter restrictions on the major industries emitting heavy metals, such as the smelting and mining of non-ferrous metals and electroplating.

The ministry has also, in recent years, been drafting, but has yet to enact, a number of laws and regulations related to soil pollution and heavy metals. A national soil pollution prevention law is rumoured to be set for release by 2017. In January, several statements stressed the importance of soil protection policies since 2008, and two sets of soil quality standards were recently revised for public consultation. Moreover, the very first soil-specific national strategy, the Clean Soil Action Plan (nicknamed the "10 Soil Statements") is expected to be released by the end of the year.

There are two major reasons for the government to speed up progress. The first is food production. In the latest "Number 1 Document", a strategic directive on agricultural production, the government talks of its unwavering commitment to maintaining a high domestic produce supply ratio. Clearly, soil protection is critical to guarantee yield, especially when the rate of soil degradation is accelerating.

The second impetus is the lack of land for urban development. Last December, in a meeting of the Central Agricultural Working Group, it was revealed that 12 provinces had run out of land for construction. This forces local governments to use already developed sites, even if that ground has already been contaminated. This land must be graded and treated before entering the market. It was for this reason that Beijing and Chongqing issued their own soil-specific regulations in 2007. Thus, soil protection legislation is urgently needed for providing legal grounds for the reuse of contaminated land.

The central government has shown a strong determination to address the issue of soil pollution. However, significant results are yet to be seen.

Disagreements among local governments is one reason for the delay of nationwide policy. Unlike air and water pollution, soil pollution can be more effectively tackled with regional strategies rather than through an overarching national approach. The geological nature of soil differs from region to region, and local authorities must figure out the most suitable strategies for the local conditions. For instance, some areas might naturally have higher concentrations of metals, in which case a better way to mitigate risk is to ensure the land is used appropriately, rather than by soil remediation. Moreover, soil does not travel, meaning that provincial governments can manage their own soil without the need for cross-boundary coordination. Also, soil management policies' heavy demand for researchers, laboratories and equipment can most easily be met by provincial-level governments.

Experts in the field suggest, however, that technical barriers have been a major hindrance for provincial governments. Many face confusion about clean soil standards, the right technology for soil inspection and treatment, and management strategies for vast areas of land. Local governments may need more guidance from above to overcome such barriers.

Shanghai was the first local government to establish its own soil policy. The city developed its clean soil standards in 2007, in the run-up to the World Expo 2010. This set of standards has since become a valuable reference for other cities. The central government should provide stronger incentives for selected provincial governments to develop their own strategies and become pioneers of soil protection policy. By focusing investment on a couple of selected provinces, relevant skills and mechanisms can be developed more efficiently. Compared to top-down political directives, this regionally implemented policy can more efficiently meet the needs of China's cities and provinces.

A recent UN report said that if demand for agricultural products grows at current rates, by 2050 the earth will need additional agricultural land equivalent to the size of India. As the world's third-largest country in terms of land area, and the largest producer and consumer of crops, China's policies on soil pollution will have an enormous impact on the world's soil landscape. With a series of policies set to be introduced this year, 2015 will be crucial to soil protection in China. The government has shown good intentions but an ambitious goal and action plan with a timeframe are required.

Ada Kong is a senior campaigner from Greenpeace East Asia