Animal carcasses in its waterways, heavy particles in its air, toxic metals in its soil and food supply — these are a few of the things that led China to make waves on Earth Day by submitting proposals to its national legislature that would amend the country’s environmental protection law for the first time in 25 years.
The National People’s Congress began discussing the amendments on Tuesday. If passed, they will help prioritize China’s recently declared “war on pollution” over its growth-at-any-cost approach to economic development.
The measures would greatly increase the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s (MEP) capacity to enforce regulations. Government bureaus would be able to close polluting companies and detain executives whose companies fail to comply with environmental requirements. Whistleblowers would receive legal protections, and industrial development would be restricted in parts of the country.
“This is a very positive sign,” Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told VICE News. “The time has come for some tougher reforms in China.”
Turner said that giving the MEP the ability to take action is an important step. Local officials are usually responsible for implementing environmental policy (or not implementing it, as the case may be), leaving the central government very weak in this area.
While the potential legislative breakthrough has been developing for some time, it comes on the heels of a declassified government study that paints a grave picture of soil contamination in China.
“The overall condition of the Chinese soil allows no optimism,” the study says. “In some areas, soil pollution is relatively severe. The condition of arable land is troubling, with the problem of pollution from industry and mining particularly worrisome."
The government acknowledged that about 20 percent of the farmland in China is polluted with contaminants like cadmium, nickel, and arsenic. It conducted the study between 2005 and 2013, but the data wasn’t released until last Thursday.
“A lot of people knew the problem was serious,” Fred Gale, a senior economist at the US Department of Agriculture who focuses on China’s agriculture industry, told VICE News.
Gale speculated that public outcry last year over large amounts of cadmium in China’s rice might have prompted the government to finally publish the study, which it had held as a state secret. The tainted rice was found in batches from Hunan province, which is a major supplier of rice as well as one of the country’s top producers of metals.
Removing contaminants from the soil will be costly and time intensive. In the meanwhile, Gale thinks that China is going to have to focus on scaling back agricultural output.
“China places a high priority on food security and being self-reliant,” he said, “but they’re going to have to roll back production and start importing more.”
Gale expects China to maintain its production of staples like rice and wheat, but thinks it will become more dependent on corn, meat, and dairy imports.
While metals are being found in the soil and food supply, another source of pollution is agriculture, especially livestock. Many of the pollutants found in the soil were linked to fertilizers and pesticides. China’s livestock industry contributes three times more waste than industrial sources.
“Trying to grow industry and mining and also agriculture in the same country with a limited supply of land, there’s bound to be a collision.” said Gale.
Livestock also bears the brunt of pollution and environmental chaos in China. Some of the most sensational headlines in the last year have concerned dead pigs and other animals being found in China’s rivers.
Last week, at least 170 dead pigs were found in a tributary of the Yellow River. This pales in comparison to the 16,000 pig carcasses that were discovered early last year in rivers that supply water to Shanghai. As those animals were being cleared, roughly a thousand dead ducks were found in the Nanhe River.
Later that year, some 220,000 pounds of dead fish had to be removed from Hubei province owing to ammonia poisoning from a chemical plant.
In March, Chinese media reported that nearly 500 dead pigs are removed from a Sichuan reservoir every month.
While pollution is almost certainly having negative effects on China’s animals, the regular dumping of swine is likely the unanticipated outcome of a well-intentioned policy.
Chinese farmers had a habit of secretly selling diseased pigs at a discount. In an effort to curb this, the government began cracking down on farmers to report their diseased animals.
But Turner explained that if a farmer reports a diseased animal, the government could potentially have all of the livestock killed in order to prevent the spread of disease. Fearful of this, farmers are dumping dead animals instead of reporting the problem.
The result of this practice, of course, has proven to be a far greater concern to the public. With a ballooning middle class enjoying wider access to communication, China’s citizens have become increasingly aware of the impact pollution and environmental neglect have on their lives. Last year, an official disclosed that 90 percent of the groundwater of China’s cities is polluted, most of it severely.
Failing to tackle these issues will only serve to increase dissatisfaction with the government — which, in a year that marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, isn’t what China’s leaders want.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB