The nitrogen cycle has been radically changed by human activities1. China consumes nearly one third of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers. The excessive application of fertilizers2,3 and increased nitrogen discharge from livestock, domestic and industrial sources have resulted in pervasive water pollution. Quantifying a nitrogen ‘boundary’4 in heterogeneous environments is important for the effective management of local water quality. Here we use a combination of water-quality observations and simulated nitrogen discharge from agricultural and other sources to estimate spatial patterns of nitrogen discharge into water bodies across China from 1955 to 2014. We find that the critical surface-water quality standard (1.0 milligrams of nitrogen per litre) was being exceeded in most provinces by the mid-1980s, and that current rates of anthropogenic nitrogen discharge (14.5 ± 3.1 megatonnes of nitrogen per year) to fresh water are about 2.7 times the estimated ‘safe’ nitrogen discharge threshold (5.2 ± 0.7 megatonnes of nitrogen per year). Current efforts to reduce pollution through wastewater treatment and by improving cropland nitrogen management can partially remedy this situation. Domestic wastewater treatment has helped to reduce net discharge by 0.7 ± 0.1 megatonnes in 2014, but at high monetary and energy costs. Improved cropland nitrogen management could remove another 2.3 ± 0.3 megatonnes of nitrogen per year—about 25 per cent of the excess discharge to fresh water. Successfully restoring a clean water environment in China will further require transformational changes to boost the national nutrient recycling rate from its current average of 36 per cent to about 87 per cent, which is a level typical of traditional Chinese agriculture. Although ambitious, such a high level of nitrogen recycling is technologically achievable at an estimated capital cost of approximately 100 billion US dollars and operating costs of 18–29 billion US dollars per year, and could provide co-benefits such as recycled wastewater for crop irrigation and improved environmental quality and ecosystem services.

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Additional information

Author contributions CQ.Y. led the research and drafted the manuscript. X.H., H.C. and CQ.Y. performed modelling. CQ.Y., SQ.N., GR.H., SC.Q., YC.X., J.Z. and Z.F. collected and processed the data. H.C.J.G., J.S.W., J.H., P.G., XT.J., P.C., N.C.S., D.O.H., ZL.S., L.Y., WJ.C., HH.F., XM.H., C.Z., HB.L. and J.T. were involved with improving the research design and the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors declare no competing interests.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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Part of this work was supported by the Chinese National Basic Research Program (2017YFA0603602 and 2014CB953803). H.C.J.G. and J.H. acknowledge support from the Wellcome Trust, Our Planet Our Health initiative (Livestock, Environment and People project 205212/Z/16/Z). We acknowledge support from the supercomputer team of Sunway TaihuLight.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks David Kanter, Xin Zhang and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Earth System Modeling, Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

    • ChaoQing Yu
    • , Xiao Huang
    • , Han Chen
    • , Jonathon S. Wright
    • , Peng Gong
    • , ShaoQiang Ni
    • , ShengChao Qiao
    • , GuoRui Huang
    • , YuChen Xiao
    • , Jie Zhang
    • , Zhao Feng
    • , Nils Chr. Stenseth
    • , Le Yu
    • , WenJia Cai
    • , HaoHuan Fu
    •  & XiaoMeng Huang
  2. AI for Earth Laboratory, Cross-strait Tsinghua Research Institute, Xiamen, China

    • ChaoQing Yu
    •  & Peng Gong
  3. Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research, Saerheim, Norway

    • Xiao Huang
  4. Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • H. Charles J. Godfray
  5. Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • H. Charles J. Godfray
  6. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Jim W. Hall
  7. College of Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China

    • XiaoTang Ju
  8. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE), Gif sur Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
  9. Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

    • Nils Chr. Stenseth
  10. Section for Aquatic Biology and Toxicology (AQUA), University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

    • Dag O. Hessen
  11. Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies (IAMO), Halle (Saale), Germany

    • ZhanLi Sun
  12. School of Chemical Science and Engineering, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Chi Zhang
  13. Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, China

    • HongBin Liu
  14. School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK

    • James Taylor


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to ChaoQing Yu.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-4 and Supplementary References.

  2. Video 1: Video of the annual anthropogenic N discharge and water quality in China during 1955-2014.

    The sources of urban N discharge (ton/km2) include human organic waste and industrial waste water. Rural N discharge (ton/km2) includes human organic waste and livestock excretion. The map of the cropland N discharge (ton/km2) includes runoff and leaching. Water quality is classified according to the national water-quality standards for total N (TN). Observed national grain yields, synthetic N use, and estimated nutrient recycling rates and the total N discharges are shown in the panels to the right of the map.

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