Grounds for fear

It’s official, Chinese soil is shockingly polluted

Drought w

About 19% of farmland is toxic

During Darren Aronofosky’s recently released blockbuster Noah, the audience waits with anticipation for the moment when the flood begins. While China’s farmers aren’t quite on the verge of such an apocalypse, the release of a report last week about the country’s soil quality did seem like a seminal moment. It also pointed to the potential for disaster if soil pollution continues to go unchecked.

“Grim” was how the Ministry of Environmental Protection described the report’s findings. The bleak reaction was called for: the eight-year survey had found that 16% of China’s land and 19% of its farmland contained higher-than-permitted toxin levels.

The main pollutants in the soil are cadmium, nickel, copper, arsenic, mercury, lead, and DDT and BHC (two chemicals found in pesticides now banned in the US and in Europe).

The survey blamed “mining, industry and agriculture” for the degradation of the soil, noting that pollution is worst in the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, as well as in the south of the country where most of China’s rice is grown.

Soil in some areas was shown to contain five times the permitted amount of harmful substances. “Overall it is hard to be an optimist about the state of soil nationwide,” the ministry said in a statement. “Faced with the grim situation the state will introduce a series of measures to strengthen environmental protections and wage war on the problem of soil pollution.”

The report was made public, but only after an earlier draft had been classified as a state secret when Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei sought to obtain a copy last year. The fact it is now in the public domain – scary though the findings – is at least a step forward, revealing a more positive attitude to environmental transparency. “It’s a breakthrough that this very important data is released because it shows the authorities are now responding to peoples’ worries,” Dong told Bloomberg.

But Dong wasn’t wholly won over by the authorities’ change of heart. “This is progress but the data should be released every year. The statistics are a bit old now so in reality the situation is probably worse,” he warned on his weibo account shortly after the report was released.

Given the amount of land surveyed in this report – 6.3 million square kilometres of it – an annual survey would be a big ask. But the government knows it needs to find policy options to reverse some of the deterioration. One of the best ways to improve the soil but maintain farmer incomes is to rotate traditional crops like rice for non-edible cash crops like cotton, flowers or mulberry bushes for silk, the People’s Daily reported.

Soil contamination is regarded as one of the hardest pollution challenges to tackle. “Compared with air and water pollution, soil pollution is more difficult to control and remedy, taking a much longer time and needing more resources,” Chen Tongbin, a fellow with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, told Xinhua.

But it was a case of water pollution in the northwestern city of Lanzhou earlier this month that served as another reminder of the complexity of China’s environmental challenge.

The city of 2.4 million inhabitants saw its water restricted for two days when it emerged that benzene levels in the water supply were 20 times the national standard. Reportedly, the source of the contamination was tracked to a CNPC refinery which experienced a pipeline fire in 2002. Hydrocarbons then leaked into the surrounding soil, making their way into pipes at the city’s water filtration plant. The water company, France’s Veolia, only seems to have discovered the contamination when it carried out unscheduled tests on April 2, although a local court last week rejected a lawsuit from five residents demanding release of earlier test results.

“The water tasted funny a month ago and nobody cared! We drank it for a whole month because we were told it was fine. Now we know it is polluted! Can we really trust the government?”one resident fumed on weibo.

Yao Xin, the Veolia boss in Lanzhou, later “bowed and expressed his apology” at a news conference organised by the city’s government, according to Xinhua.

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