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Decline in Chinese lake phosphorus concentration accompanied by shift in sources since 2006

Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 507511 (2017) | Download Citation


Domestic wastewater and agricultural activities are important sources of nutrient pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Upon reaching freshwater, these nutrients can lead to extensive growth of harmful algae, which results in eutrophication. Many Chinese lakes are subject to such eutrophication, especially in highly polluted areas, and as such, understanding nutrient fluxes to these lakes offers insights into the varying processes governing pollutant fluxes as well as lake water quality. Here we analyse water quality data, recorded between 2006 and 2014 in 862 freshwater lakes in four geographical regions of China, to assess the input of phosphorus from human activity. We find that improvements in sanitation of both rural and urban domestic wastewater have resulted in large-scale declines in lake phosphorus concentrations in the most populated parts of China. In more sparsely populated regions, diffuse sources such as aquaculture and livestock farming offset this decline. Anthropogenic deforestation and soil erosion may also offset decreases in point sources of pollution. In the light of these regional differences, we suggest that a spatially flexible set of policies for water quality control would be beneficial for the future health of Chinese lakes.

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We greatly appreciate the useful comments in the pre-reviews by D. E. Armstrong, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, and P. Whitehead, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK. We also appreciate the help from R. F. Wright, Norwegian Institute for Water Research, in the further improvement of the manuscript in the revision processes. D. Whitehead, Asian-English Language Services, UK, helped in the polishing of the language.

Author information


  1. School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Tianjin University, Tianjin 300072, China

    • Yindong Tong
    •  & Xiaoge Bu
  2. School of Environment and Natural Resources, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China

    • Wei Zhang
  3. College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Xuejun Wang
    •  & Wei He
  4. Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Oslo 0349, Norway

    • Raoul-Marie Couture
    • , Thorjørn Larssen
    •  & Yan Lin
  5. Earth and Environmental Sciences, Ecohydrology Group, University of Waterloo, Waterloo N2L3G2, Canada

    • Raoul-Marie Couture
  6. Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, Beijing 100012, China

    • Yue Zhao
  7. College of Urban and Environment Science, Tianjin Normal University, Tianjin 300387, China

    • Jing Li
    •  & Huijiao Liang
  8. Institute of Surface-Earth System Science, Tianjin University, Tianjin 300072, China

    • Xueyan Liu
  9. Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

    • Qianggong Zhang


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Y.T., W.Z., X.W., Y.Z. and Y.L. conceived the study. J.L. and H.L. performed the calculation of eutrophication potential. Y.T., X.L., X.B. and Y.L. performed the calculation of the phosphorus discharges. Y.T., Y.L., R.-M.C., T.L., W.H. and Q.Z. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yan Lin.

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