China's environment ministry approves new plan to tackle rural pollution

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China’s environment ministry has approved a new plan to tackle growing pollution threats in its vast countryside, and will strive to clean up contaminated rural land and drinking water and improve waste management, it said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: A woman works at a vegetable garden next a canal with polluted waters in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, September 5, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

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

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

“Alongside the improvements in urban air quality, the quality of the environment in many rural areas has not improved and in some areas it is still deteriorating,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a non-government organization focusing on pollution monitoring in China.

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 trash dumped in the countryside, promising to mobilize 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 in order to improve the appearance of China’s villages, and would also focus on improving garbage and sewage treatment.

But rural pollution could prove a far bigger and more costly challenge than urban smog, said Ma.

“There is a serious lack of infrastructure there for the disposal of human waste and sewage, the huge amount of livestock farming waste, chemical fertilisers and pesticides and, of course, the trash,” he said.

Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Christian Schmollinger