Contaminated Site Clean-up Opportunities in China

As reported by the South China Morning Post, China’s government recently approved a new plan to tackle growing pollution threats in its countryside, and will strive to clean up contaminated rural land and drinking water and improve waste management.

The new plan, approved “in principle” by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment is the summer also mandates cuts in fertilizer and pesticide use and improved recycling rates throughout the countryside.

Industrial pollution of land in China. The authorities have been reluctant to divulge details of the localised scale of the problem (Image by JungleNews)

China is in the fifth year of a “war on pollution” designed to reverse the damage done by decades of tremendous economic growth, but it has so far focused primarily on air quality along the industrialized eastern coast, especially around the capital Beijing.

China’s countryside has struggled to cope with land and water pollution caused not only by unsustainable farming practices, but also by poorly regulated, privately-owned mines and manufacturing plants, as well as rising volumes of plastic waste.

Rehabilitating contaminated land has become a matter of urgency for the Chinese government, which is under pressure to maximize food production while at the same time it is setting aside one-quarter of the country’s land as off-limits to development by 2020.

Total arable land declined for a fourth consecutive year in 2017 as a result of new construction and tougher environmental requirements, the government said in May.

The State Council published a plan in February to deal with growing volumes of untreated rubbish dumped in the countryside, promising to mobilise public and private funds to make “noticeable improvements” to the living environment of rural regions by 2020.

It vowed to restore wetlands, plant trees and eliminate “disorderly” rural construction to improve the appearance of China’s villages, and would also focus on improving garbage and sewage treatment.

In August, the Chinese government enacted the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law.  This is the first time China has enacted a law targeting soil pollution.  For existing soil pollution, the law holds polluters and users (as it is rare in China for individuals to own land) accountable for a series of risk management and remediation obligations, with the polluters being primarily responsible.

According to an article by IISD, the estimated cost for remediation efforts between 2016 and 2020 at $1.3 trillion (USD). The government itself estimates it might be able to cover only a small fraction of the overall cost.  During China’s the 12th Five-year Plan (2011–2015), only $4.5 billion) was allocated to soil remediation, mainly for urban areas.

Combine polluter payments with government support and a prohibitive capital gap still exists in China’s efforts to restore land and protect public health. This gap will have to be filled by private sources.