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Polluted lands

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJuly 24, 2014

With 19 percent of China's farmland contaminated, agriculture and the livelihood of rural communities are being badly hit. Soil pollution is an issue often obfuscated by the authorities, says China expert Isabel Hilton.

A vast expanse of toxic waste fills the tailings dam on April 21, 2011, frequently whipped up by strong winds dumping mllions of tonnes of radioactive materials toward surounding villages where farmers blame the state-owned giant Baogang Group, China's largest producer of rare earths and a major iron ore miner and steel producer, for poisoning their fields and ruining their livelihoods near Baotou city in Inner Mongolia, northwest China.
Image: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, July 24, Beijing closed the first of four large coal-fired power plants set to be shut down as part of efforts to tackle the country's air pollution problem, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. The 50-year-old Gaojing Thermal Power Plant is to be replaced with a gas-fired power station as the Chinese capital aims to boost its reliance on cleaner energy. But while there are visible efforts being made to curb air pollution in China, the widespread problem of soil pollution rarely makes the headlines.

A recently published report by chinadialogue and Yale Environment 360 concluded that rapid industrialization in China has left a legacy of soil pollution that is damaging health and livelihoods in villages across the country. Isabel Hilton, a China expert and founder and editor of chinadialogue says in a DW interview the country is facing big bills for the toxic legacy of its industrial boom and points that soil pollution - which is harder to curb that air pollution – has led to a competition for water in between industry and agriculture.

How acute is the problem of soil pollution across China?

It is very difficult to get a complete picture of the extent and severity of soil pollution in China because the government has refused, so far, to publish the data that it has been collecting for many years. Whilst this refusal must arouse the suspicion that pollution is extensive, we cannot quantify it exactly. In July 2007, the Ministry of Land and the National Bureau of Statistics launched a nationwide soil survey that was completed in 2009.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster. She is founder and editor of chinadialogue, an independent, non-profit organization based in London, Beijing and San Francisco. Copyright: Chinadialogue
Hilton: "Soil pollution is leading to fatal diseases as contaminants are taken up by crops and enter the food chain"Image: BBC One

Partial results from the survey were published in December 2013, five years later. In April 2014, the government released partial results of a second soil pollution survey, conducted from April 2005 to December 2013, reporting that about 16.1 percent of China's soil and about 19.4 percent of farmland were contaminated.

The government has classified more than three million hectares of arable land as moderately polluted. And in 2011, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said that 10 percent of China's arable land was polluted with lead, zinc and other heavy metals. What those figures do not tell us is how severe the contamination is and what the contaminants are. We do know from more local studies that heavy metals are a major problem and in agricultural areas that are close to industrial sites, which is fairly common in China, pollution can be very serious.

How has soil pollution affected the livelihoods of people?

It has impacted both agriculture and people's health. There are many examples of "cancer villages" in China – rural communities with extremely elevated rates of cancer due to pollution. Substances such as lead and cadmium have terrible effects on human health and they have been found repeatedly in crops that have been grown on polluted soils.

In Hunan, for example, one of China's most important rice-growing provinces, cadmium has been found in rice exported to other provinces and consumers are now fearful about consuming rice from Hunan. Obviously this hurts the farmers, who are not directly responsible for the pollution and are often themselves victims of its effects.

Another continuing problem is that there is competition for water in China between industry and agriculture and very lax enforcement of controls on waste discharge. Industrial enterprises, particularly in the chemical industry, frequently discharge waste directly into rivers, lakes and streams and farmers have to use contaminated water for irrigation, further contaminating both the soil and the crops.

Can soil pollution lead to such fatal diseases?

Unfortunately, soil pollution does lead to fatal diseases. Contaminants are taken up by crops and enter the food chain. Heavy metals accumulate in the body and cause a range of serious diseases, including cancers and diseases of the nervous system. Like many conditions with environmental causes, the exact chain of consequence in any case is hard to establish. But statistical and epidemiological evidence makes a strong case for the relationship between pollution and ill-health.

What were the main reasons behind the soil pollution in China?

The main sources would appear to be industrial discharge, much of it illegal, either into the air, or, more directly into water bodies, which then carry pollution onto the soil. There are also cases of seepage from industrial sites, where sludge has been dumped and insufficient care has been taken to prevent seepage. In some of these sites, the enterprises responsible have moved or been closed, but their toxic legacy remains.

According to the report, China's official approach to soil pollution has been characterized by secrecy and obfuscation. Why are Chinese authorities seemingly so reluctant to take decisive action given the risks involved?

One problem is that the Chinese system tends to encourage obfuscation rather than openness with data. Local officials are caught between conflicting demands for growth and job creation and environmental protection. They are reluctant to take responsibility for difficult problems or to admit to mistakes, so they try to hide information from the central government. This is not helped by the fact that civil society in China is weak and under-capacitated, the legal system is weak and the press is subject to political controls, so the non-governmental sources of information that you might expect to fill the gaps in another society have difficulty fulfilling that function in China.

A Chinese farmer collects the vegetables growing along the dried up bank of the Chaohu lake, the fifth largest freshwater lake in China, as water levels remain low in Chaohu, east China's Anhui province on June 4, 2011.
The government has classified more than three million hectares of arable land as moderately polluted, says HiltonImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The central government, in turn, can be reluctant to highlight a problem before they have worked on a possible solution. In the case of soil pollution, this is extremely difficult and expensive to do, so the delays and secrecy may reflect the daunting nature of the problem and the difficulty of resolving it effectively rather than a lack of will to tackle it. China is facing big bills for the toxic legacy of its industrial boom and at present air pollution is the most visible and sensitive problem and the one that is getting most of the money and attention. Soil pollution is harder because the remedies are not straightforward.

The report also mentions that the industrial boom the regions in China have experienced since the 1990s have made them richer. What is your take on this?

There is no doubt that living standards and household incomes have risen in the last thirty years as a result of China's rapid industrialization and urbanization, even if we can criticize it for the uneven distribution of benefits and the inequalities that have come with it.

The problem is that the emphasis was on very rapid GDP growth and little attention was paid to the negative effects the economists call "externalities" - which don't show up in the accounts but are there, and one day, will have to be paid for. They are showing up in their impact to health, food safety, food security and water scarcity and contamination. All of these have economic impacts, so looking only at GDP growth does not give you the true picture.

What can the government do to tackle the problem?

Firstly, the government should make the data publicly available. Secondly, it must enforce its own regulations to stop further pollution through direct dumping or contamination of water. Also, a national remediation program is needed, with rigorous testing, monitoring and controls. Finally, food safety needs to be prioritized: contaminated sites should be taken out of food production and the farmers supported to grow non-food crops or compensated for their loss of livelihood.

A man wearing a mask rides a bicycle in Beijing February 24, 2014.
At present air pollution is the most visible and sensitive problem in China and the one getting most of the money and attention, says HiltonImage: Reuters

What measures are being taken at the local and national level to confront the issue of soil pollution?

Many polluting factories have been closed down in central and eastern China. Unfortunately, this is less true of western China. There are thousands of toxic sites that need to be contained and we are still not seeing the necessary level of pollution control.

As to remediation, a number of projects are underway, but we know very little about the extent of these, the methods and costs, the results or even how they are being evaluated. None of this is public. Remediation is not just a matter of removing heavy metals – that is just the first step. Restoring the health of the soil so that it can support food production safely and effectively involves agronomy, soil science, environmental science, engineering and microbiology.

What can individuals do to protect themselves?

Individuals who can afford it can and are turning to organic foods. Unfortunately, most of the victims are relatively poor and live and work in contaminated areas. These options are not available to them. In some areas local people are asking the government to relocate them, since they see this as the only way to be safe.

Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster. She is founder and editor of chinadialogue, an independent, non-profit organization based in London, Beijing and San Francisco.