Environment

China's Hidden Pollution

As cities expand, industrial waste is getting harder to ignore.

Don't drink.

Photographer: VCG/Getty

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed his government to build a new city for the "millennium to come." It would rise on rural land about 60 miles south of Beijing, guided by the principles of "ecological protection and green development." And it would become a model for a new kind of urban expansion.

It was an attractive vision. Over the next few weeks, however, reports emerged of vast pollution in and around Xiongan, the area Xi hopes to develop. That's no surprise: China's four-decade economic boom has exacted a punishing price on the environment. But it does present an enormous challenge. Xiongan, intended as the green city of the future, will have to serve as a model for how China can clean up its past.

Although China's urban smog may get the headlines, water and soil pollution are just as bad in the countryside. Nearly 20 percent of farmland is dangerously polluted, and 80 percent of groundwater is undrinkable. City dwellers have often worsened these problems by pushing their most polluting activities -- power generation, manufacturing, waste management -- to the rural fringes where they can't be seen, heard or smelled. As China's cities expand, many of those once-hidden problems are now being exposed, and becoming nationwide scandals.

Xiongan offers a vivid example. Beginning in the 1980s, a neighboring county became a hub for recycling plastic waste. By 2010, when I visited the region, it was home to about 20,000 mostly small recycling shops that often disposed of caustic cleaning chemicals by dumping them into rivers or waste pits. I visited one such pit -- partly dug into a cemetery -- that was perhaps 20 feet deep and several hundred feet across. It was brimming with multicolored liquids that had nowhere to go but into the soil. When the local government cracked down on the recyclers in 2013, they scattered into nearby communities -- including the counties constituting Xiongan.

The resulting pollution is now coming to light, along with a growing list of other calamities. Last month, an advocacy group caused a social media uproar after it published pictures of massive "industrial sewage pits" in a nearby town that had once been home to nonferrous-metal recyclers. Then there's Baiyang Lake, a key part of Xiongan's ecology. Once known as northern China's "kidneys" for its ability to filter water, today it's unfit for human contact. A casual visitor will have no trouble spotting the garbage dumps and factory discharge pipes lining the water. In 2012, scientists determined that detoxifying the lake would require "decades of clean-up efforts."

To its credit, the government recognizes these problems. Last year, it released a plan to rehabilitate 90 percent of polluted industrial areas and farmland by 2020. Although ambitious, that hardly seems realistic: It would be the world's largest-ever soil cleanup accomplished in record time. Nor does Beijing want to devote much money to the effort. By one estimate, remediating all of China's polluted soil would cost about $1 trillion; in 2016, the government appropriated roughly $1.3 billion to the goal. A similar plan for cleaning up water has been similarly underfunded.

A better approach would be to look at pollution cleanup as something of an opportunity. Over the past three decades, the government has had no problem splurging on projects, such as high-speed rail, that have no immediate financial return but are expected to spur future economic growth. A massive pollution cleanup, especially in designated development zones, could be viewed in the same way. The private sector could also play a bigger role. Shortly after the Xiongan plan was announced, real-estate prices in the area rose by as much as 37 percent. Developers willing to pay such elevated prices should be required to pay for the cleanup, too, either through a local remediation fee based on land size or through direct efforts in partnership with the government. 

If such efforts were successful, Xiongan wouldn't be just another megalopolis. It could become an enduring symbol of a cleaner, more livable China.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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