Published online 1 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.200

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China vows to clean up rural environment

Agriculture accounts for half of all pollution in the country.

china pollutionChina has made cleaning up rural pollution a priority for the first time in its latest five year plan.REUTERS

Tackling pollution in rural areas, especially pollution from agricultural sources, will be a top priority for China in the coming years, Li Ganjie, vice-minister of environmental protection, said on 28 March at a conference in Beijing on the rural environment.

For decades, the extent of pollution caused by agriculture has not been given much attention with most efforts being focused on industrial pollution, says Zhang Fusuo, a researcher at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. This is the first time that the protection of the rural environment has been included in the country's five-year budget plan.

"This is wonderful news for the course of environmental protection in China," says Zhang.

China's rural areas produce more than 9 billion tonnes of waste water and 280 million tonnes of household rubbish a year. And as most of the country's 600,000 villages have no treatment facilities for rubbish or sewage, much of it is dumped locally untreated. "In many villages I have been, there is rubbish everywhere and it stinks like hell," says Zhang.

The major culprit in rural pollution, however, is agriculture. The first national pollution census, conducted in 2007, showed that agriculture was responsible for 43.7% of the total chemical oxygen demand (COD) — a measure of organic pollutants in water. It also contributed 57.2% and 67.3% of the total 4.7 million tonnes of nitrogen and 0.4 million tonnes of phosphorus effluents, respectively.

Big clean-up

Li said that the ministry aims to clean up 60,000 villages by 2015, focusing on regions important for freshwater resources and where pollution has had a negative impact on health — such as villages with high rates of cancer or endemic diseases.

The ministry is set to promote public awareness and participation in environmental protection in rural areas, and performance in curbing rural pollution will be one of the criteria by which local government officials are evaluated.

The clean-up programme will include new treatment facilities for household rubbish, sewage and animal manure, cleaning up contaminated soil and waterways, and the development of large-scale livestock farms to make it easier to collect and reuse manure. There are also plans to set up long-term monitoring networks to ensure sustained protection.

As most existing environmental laws and guidelines are geared towards industrial pollution, the ministry is drafting new laws on soil protection and the reduction and treatment of livestock pollution.

Although the total investment is unclear, The 21st Century Business Herald, a Chinese-language newspaper, reports that the central government will spend 9.5 billion renminbi (US$1.5 billion) over the next few years to clean up the rural environment.

Down on the farm

While welcoming such initiatives, many agriculture researchers say that they will not be enough to curb rural pollution and should be complemented by significant improvements in agricultural practices, such as better livestock management and cleaner farming.

With a limited labour force but ample subsidized chemical fertilizers available in most rural areas, dumping nutrient-rich animal manure has become an easier and cheaper option than using it to fertilize crops. And animal feed in China is loaded with additives such as antibiotics and heavy metals, making many farmers reluctant to use manure as a replacement for chemical fertilizers.

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Consequently, livestock has become the largest contributor to run-off pollution — being responsible for 98%, 38% and 56% of COD, nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively, according to the national pollution census.

The key to reducing livestock pollution is to promote greater integration between farming and livestock rearing, so that animal manure is recycled rather than becoming a source of pollution, says Wu Jinshui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Subtropical Agriculture in Changsha, Hunan province. Such a mixed crop and livestock system "could better utilize water, nutrients and animal wastes and reduce pollution", he says. But "a prerequisite of a mixed system is to tighten up regulations on animal-feed production," he adds.

In addition to laws on soil protection and livestock management, regulations on the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides — the use of which is much higher per hectare in China than in developed countries — are urgently needed, says Zhang. 

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