On Treatment of Contaminated Soil in China

By He Qinglian on Jan 5, 2014
Source Article in Chinese: 土地治污:中国学日本经验之难

On the New Year’s Eve, Wang Shiyuan, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR), made an announcement that about 50 million mu (3.3 hectares) of arable land in China is too polluted for farming.

Someone forwarded this to me, thinking that the situation is dire. I felt, however, that this number is far smaller than the data previously disclosed by Chinese media. And after a quick search on the internet, I got it. The Economic Information Daily reported on June 17, 2013 that, according to the remarks made by Prof. Luo Xiwen during an interview in October, 2011, 20 million hectares, or one-sixth of total farmland in China, has been polluted by heavy metal. Back then, Chinese media outlets were quite vocal in calling on the government to address the issue, some of them hoped to learn from the Japanese experience in this matter.

While it is true that Japan was quite successful in addressing the issue of soil contaminated with heavy metals, it is near impossible that China could borrow the Japanese experience.

To begin with, this is first determined by the difference in practice when it comes to information management in these two countries.

Japan is a democratic country. Although its media may not enjoy the same level of freedom as those in the US or Europe, the country’s press freedom rating is the highest in Asia. And more importantly, it is possible for media to effect changes in government policies in Japan. One such example is environment protection.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Japan entered the period of rapid economic growth, and instances of severe environment pollution took place all across that country. Of the so-called “four big pollution diseases” (Itai-Itai disease, Minamata disease, Niigata Minamata disease, and Yokkaichi asthma) at that time, three were related to heavy metal contamination. The Japanese media played an active role in raising environmental awareness of the Japanese public. And with the public coming forth with their demands, the media making criticism, and NGOs and human rights lawyers stepping in, the Japanese government came to appreciate its responsibility in causing these pollution issues and a consensus of pollution prevention was reached in the whole society.

Following the enactment of relevant legislations, the Japanese government eventually managed to prevent causing new pollution issues and resolve the aforementioned cases.

Chinese media, on the contrary, is place under strict control by the government. Even though there once was room for reportage concerning environment protection, and media professionals could run reports on sudden environmental disasters before the propaganda organs stepped in, criticism from the media had basically failed to effect government policies. Take for example the issue of heavy metal contamination. Although Chinese media reports had pointed out that pollution issues concentrated in developed areas in China, such as the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, and industrial bases in Northeastern China, and environmental protection groups compiled charts and graphs about food and water contamination and cadmium pollution in support of these reports—and they even concluded in one of their studies that there were more than 240 cancer villages in China, the Chinese authorities carried on with the practices that caused these issues.

Another difference lies in the lawmakers of the two countries. Members of the Japanese Diet could influence relevant legislation by showing their concern about pollution issues. Whereas in China, every year there would be delegates raising pollution issues during the “Two Meetings”. In the “Two Meetings” in 2013 for example, they raised the problems of “China’s toxic GDP”, of 600 million people being affected by repeated occurrence of severe smog across the country, of 90% of groundwater being polluted, and so on. These were mere statements only; they had little influence on the legislation process.

An even bigger difference lies in how the two countries regard the issues of pollution and contamination. Unlike Japan, China sees these issues as “state secrets” and denies the public the right to this information. Between 2006 and 2010, the Chinese government spent one billion to conduct a nationwide survey of soil contamination. Experts participated in the survey said it “brought the conditions of Chinese land into full view”. Yet, while the survey was concluded, its result has so far not been disclosed. Reportedly a lawyer in Beijing filed an application with the Ministry of Environment Protection, asking that the methodology of the nationwide soil contamination survey and its result be made public. The Ministry rejected his application on the grounds that those were “state secrets”.

Pollution treatment would cost China much much more than Japan.

In Japan, the areas contaminated with heavy metals concentrated mainly in the industrial regions where the “four big pollution diseases” broke out. In China, the size of land contaminated with heavy metals is far larger. Spreading far and wide, these areas are more badly polluted than the likes in Japan. When it comes to pollution treatment, it’s unlikely that China would spend big money on it like Japan did, though.

How much did Japan spend on treating soil contaminated with heavy metals? and how they did it? In 2010, the Southern Metropolis Daily sent journalists to Japan to find out.

Japan chose “soil dressing method”, or soil replacement, as the way to treat contaminated soil. This decision was made in that rice root could not, as studies suggested, reach underground soil more than 25 cm deep. And so the contaminated soil was overlaid with a layer of solid substance, upon which is a layer of soil brought in from elsewhere. Beginning in the 1970s, the Toyama Prefecture spent 33 years and 340 million dollars to clean up 863 hectares of the polluted farmland.

Japanese officials told the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter that in present day, the cost to recover each hectare of soil is roughly 20 to 50 million yen. That reporter checked “the restoration table of polluted farmland at the basin of Jinzugawa” and said in the report that, “in the past four decades, the total costs of soil restoration was about 42 billion yen, or approximately 3 billion yuan. And that’s not the end of the project.”

Between the recent MLR revelation that 50 million hectares of farmland being moderately or severely polluted by heavy metals and the remarks by prof. Luo that 20 million mu (300 million hectares) of arable land being contaminated by heavy metals, I am convinced that the latter presented a fuller picture. However, there is surely no way China could afford the costs for restoring 300 million hectares of farmland. And I assume the recent MLR figure is the size of polluted farmland the Chinese government prepares to spend money to restore. This, calculated based on the Japanese budget of 180,000 yuan per hectare of farmland, would cost China about nine trillion yuan.

In Japan, it is the polluters that are held responsible for cleaning up, and conglomerates there are serious about their social responsibility. From the 1980s onward, conglomerates like Mitsui realized their social responsibility and would carry out soil restoration project in accordance with agreement. Chinese enterprises, however, lack that sense of social responsibility. Once owners of these companies realize that the compensation amount would be high, they would go great lengths to transfer funds elsewhere and then declare bankruptcy. In view of this, if the Chinese government really is to initiate soil restoration, it would definitely be a government project, and taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

How much money is the Chinese government going to spend? The following two sets of data might shed some light on the answer. One, between 2001 and 2012, the ecology compensation fund arranged by the Central government increased from 2.3 billion yuan each year to about 78 billion annually. The accumulated amount in these 11 years was around 250 billion yuan. Two, the Economic Construction Department of the Ministry of Finance recently announced that the Central government would allocate 8.8 billion yuan to the treatment of small- and medium-sized rivers in 35 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, and specially listed cities as well as similar projects under the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

It is true that China boosts a tremendous volume of GDP, which comes in as the world’s second largest. It is also true that China bears a huge amount of debts. The authorities recently admitted that government debts across the country exceed 20.6 trillion yuan, with a debt ratio at 113.41%. This is merely a portion of the year-end figure of 2012 as estimated by Lyonnais Securities. The firm estimated that the total volume of debts (government, business, and individual included) in China stood at 107 trillion yuan, or 205% of the country’s GDP. Take also into account the huge expenditure in the military, and stability maintenance and one could see why, at present, the Japanese experience in soil contamination treatment is a far-fetched idea for China.

Even so, I want to point out that the Chinese government should at least work out ways to reduce pollution even if is unable commit sizable amount of money in treating and restoring contaminated soil. For instance, it could step up its efforts to sanction pollution; it could ensure the Chinese people have adequate right to information about environment pollution; it could allow the public to defend rights in environment issues; and it could allow environment groups to help the public in lawsuit against corporate polluters. These are the only way to nurture the sense of environment protection in the whole of society and gradually change the economic development model that relies on high energy consumption, and causes high pollution.