Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Managing nitrogen to restore water quality in China


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: The changing nitrogen cycle and its contributions to food production in China from 1955 to 2014.
Fig. 2: Reconstructing nitrogen discharge from 1955 to 2014 and the associated evolution of surface-water quality in terms of total nitrogen.
Fig. 3: Thresholds of nitrogen discharge to the water environment and the potential contributions of INM in reducing nitrogen pollution.
Fig. 4: Anthropogenic nitrogen discharge and requirements to meet the critical threshold in each province of mainland China.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Galloway, J. et al. Transformation of the nitrogen cycle: recent trends, questions, and potential solutions. Science 320, 889–892 (2008).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Zhang, X. et al. Managing nitrogen for sustainable development. Nature 528, 51–59 (2015).

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Lassaletta, L. et al. 50 year trends in nitrogen use efficiency of world cropping systems: the relationship between yield and nitrogen input to cropland. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 105011 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bodirsky, B. L. et al. Reactive nitrogen requirements to feed the world in 2050 and potential to mitigate nitrogen pollution. Nat. Commun. 5, 3858 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAOSTAT (2014).

  7. United Nations Environment Programme. Towards a Pollution-free Planet (2017).

  8. Li, C., Frolking, S. & Frolking, T. A. A model of nitrous oxide evolution from soil driven by rainfall events: 1. Model structure and sensitivity. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 9759–9776 (1992).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Li, Z. F. et al. Grain yield trends of different food crops under long-term fertilization in China. Chin. Agric. Sci. 42, 2407–2414 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Erisman, J. W. et al. How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nat. Geosci. 1, 636–639 (2008).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Stewart, W. M. et al. The contribution of commercial fertilizer nutrients to food production. Agron. J. 97, 1–6 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Rockström, J. et al. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14, 32 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. de Vries, W. et al. Assessing planetary and regional nitrogen boundaries related to food security and adverse environmental impacts. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 392–402 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Xu, Z. W. et al. Review of dual stable isotope technique for nitrate source identification in surface-and groundwater in China. Environ. Sci. 35, 3230–3238 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ministry of Water Resources of China. Groundwater Monthly Bulletin: January 2016 (P2) (2016).

  16. Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China  Environmental Quality Standard for Surface Water (2002).

  17. Camargo, J. A. & Alonso, A. Ecological and toxicological effects of inorganic nitrogen pollution in aquatic ecosystems: A global assessment. Environ. Int. 32, 831 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Ministry of Agriculture of China. The Action Plan for Targeting Zero Growth of Synthetic Fertilizer Use by 2020 (2015).

  19. Cui, Z. et al. Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers. Nature 555, 363–366 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Tan, X. et al. Institutional analysis of sewage treatment charge based on operating cost of sewage treatment plant—an empirical research of 227 samples in China. [in Chinese] Chin. Environ. Sci. 35, 3833–3840 (2015);

    Google Scholar 

  21. Wu, Y. Y. Analysis of the current status of nitrogen removal and phosphorus removal in China’s urban sewage treatment facilities and countermeasures. Water Wastewater Eng. 118–122 (2014);

  22. Zhao, Y. Y. Study on the characteristic of the sewage plant emitting ammonia nitrogen. Environ. Monit. China 4, 58–61 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Song, L. P., Wei, L. Y. & Zhao, L. J. Analysis of construction and operation status and existing problems of municipal wastewater treatment plants in China. Water Wastewater Eng. 39, 39–44 (2013);

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gupta, V. K. et al. Chemical treatment technologies for waste-water recycling—an overview. RSC Adv. 2, 6380–6388 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Wang, J., Zhang, T. & Chen, J. Cost model for reducing total COD and ammonia nitrogen loads in wastewater treatment plants. Chin. Environ. Sci. 29, 443–448 (2009).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Qiu, Q. et al. Effects of plant-derived dissolved organic matter (DOM) on soil CO2 and N2O emissions and soil carbon and nitrogen sequestrations. Appl. Soil Ecol. 96, 122–130 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning China Environmental and Economic Accounting Report 2010 (2012).

  28. Kanter, D. R., Zhang, X. & Mauzerall, D. L. Reducing nitrogen pollution while decreasing farmers’ costs and increasing fertilizer industry profits. J. Environ. Qual. 44, 325 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


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

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to ChaoQing Yu.

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.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Yu, C., Huang, X., Chen, H. et al. Managing nitrogen to restore water quality in China. Nature 567, 516–520 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing Microbiology

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Microbiology newsletter — what matters in microbiology research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Microbiology