China urges local governments to shell out resources to treat soil pollution

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China has urged local authorities to invest more to clean up contaminated agricultural land, with some regions still failing to take responsibility for dangerous levels of soil pollution, the country’s agriculture ministry said on Monday.

Soil pollution has emerged as one of China’s biggest environmental challenges, with nearly a fifth of the country’s farmland exposed to various degrees of contamination by pesticides, mining residues, chemical waste or toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, according to a government survey.

China drew up an action plan to tackle the issue, and a new law came into effect at the start of this year. However, the government has struggled to figure out how to pay for a nation-wide treatment program that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said while some regions had brought soil pollution under “initial control”, other regions were not taking the problem seriously or devoting enough resources to tackle it.

“Every province should increase the financial investment put into soil pollution prevention, and speed up the establishment of a provincial soil pollution prevention fund,” the notice said.

The ministry said it would also speed up the creation of a “green-oriented agricultural subsidy system”, “give full play” to innovative fund-raising methods and make use of new financing mechanisms such as public-private partnerships.

China is desperate to bring more of its scarce farmland back into circulation in a bid to maximize agricultural production, especially as the country continues to urbanize.

The government said last year it would make around 90 percent of contaminated farmland safe for crops by the end of 2020. It also aimed to convert around 3.3 million acres of heavily polluted land to forest or grassland by the end of next year.

China is in the sixth year of its “war on pollution”, designed to reverse the damage done to the skies, rivers and soil by more than three decades of break-neck industrial growth.

While overall improvements were made last year, some regions were falling behind when it came to tackling long-standing pollution problems, environment minister Li Ganjie said in a report delivered to the parliament on Sunday.

“Facing bigger downward economic pressures, some regions have loosened their grip on environmental protection,” he said. “The foundations of environmental protection in some regions and sectors are weak, and the foundations and infrastructure in rural regions are severely lagging.”

Reporting by David Stanway, Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips