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Politics

How China can win its war on soil pollution

TOKYO -- China is plagued by not only air and water pollution but also increasingly severe soil contamination. Now the government is attempting to do something about its poisoned land.

     The State Council's latest work report, delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the National People's Congress earlier this month, promised serious policy efforts to clean up soil laden with toxic metals and other pollutants.

     The country's Ministry of Environmental Protection is currently working on a comprehensive action plan. The initiative, to run until 2017, will include the elimination of certain pollutants as well as steps to clean up soil that is already damaged.  

     The plan is to be announced sometime this year, according to Chinese media reports.  

The scope of the problem

The Chinese Academy of Sciences admits the problem has worsened since a national survey of soil pollution was conducted in 1994 and 1995. Even in densely populated coastal areas in the eastern part of the country, soil contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic poses a serious threat to human health. 

     There are growing fears that rice and other crops could be dangerous to consume. Early last year, there was a public outcry after rice from Hunan Province was found to contain levels of cadmium that were well above safety standards.

     Assessments vary as to how much land is affected. About 8.2 million acres of farmland in China is too polluted for crops, according to one estimate by the Ministry of Land and Resources. That represents 2.5% of all farmland in the country. But the Environmental Protection Ministry recently released data indicating that some 24.7 million acres, or 8.3%, of agricultural land is contaminated.

     The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is sounding the alarm.

What must be done

Details of the action plan have yet to be unveiled. But drawing on other countries' experiences with soil pollution, it is safe to say a few things are vital if China is to successfully deal with the problem.

     First, the country must establish clear rules concerning mandatory surveys.

     To prevent soil pollution from affecting citizens' health, it is crucial to obtain accurate information about polluted areas. Only then can appropriate measures be taken. Yet it is practically impossible to survey all land. It would be more realistic to mandate that soil surveys be conducted on specific occasions, such as factory closures, land transactions and the start of local development projects.

     Second, the survey data must be fully disclosed. The Chinese government has so far refused to release information about the locations of soil pollution, filing it under state secrets. That is probably because revealing contamination would run counter to the interests of numerous individuals and businesses. Nevertheless, to stop the spread of pollution and carry out effective remedies through a societywide campaign, the information needs to be publicized.

     Third, it is necessary to clarify standards for carrying out surveys and countermeasures. Sloppy work and unscrupulous practices -- say, transferring polluted soil elsewhere for illegal dumping -- could seriously hamper the initiative. The effectiveness of the whole plan depends on how this is handled.

     Most importantly, the action plan should bring consistency and integrity to the jumble of measures that have been adopted separately by the nation's central and local governments -- and even different ministries.

Help available

Despite the icy relationship between Japan and China at the moment, it is worth noting that Japanese companies could contribute to Beijing's battle with dirty soil. Some are already doing so.

     In 2012, EnBio Holdings established a soil remediation company in the Chinese city of Nanjing with a local partner. The venture, called In Situ Solutions China, has commenced medium-scale tests of cleanup methods for soil and groundwater at sites that were once home to chemical plants.

     Now that China's government is embarking on an all-out campaign to cleanse its soil, Japanese technology and expertise may prove helpful.

Eiichiro Adachi serves as counselor at the Japan Research Institute.

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