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Sharpen Vigilance against EnvironmentalPollution in the Process of Rural Modernization ——An Issue That Cannot Be Ignored in Building a New Countryside


By Su Yang

Research Report No 072, 2006

The rural environment in its narrow sense is relative to the urban environment. It is the sum total of the natural and social conditions within a scope that takes the place of farmer habitation as the center. For a long time, the rural areas in China were noted for a low level of industrialization, a low density of population and a surplus of environmental capacity. As a result, the environmental problems in China’s rural areas were mainly manifested in desertification, soil erosion and other ecological problems in some regions. Pollution was not a serious problem. In recent years, however, rural pollution has become an increasingly serious problem as China has sped up the pace of its modernization drive and the improvement of the urban environment. It is particularly so in the developed regions in the east, which have a high degree of industrialization and urbanization. Rural pollution has not only impaired the life and health of hundreds of millions of rural people, but also eventually impaired the life and health of urban people through water, air, food and other channels. Today when the incumbent government set the building of a new socialist countryside as one of its goals, solving the environmental pollution in the rural areas should become a top priority for the governments at all levels.

I. Three Types of Environmental Pollutions in the Process of Rural Modernization

China’s rural modernization involves the intensification and industrialization of the mode of production, the urbanization of population distribution and the marketization of the economic system. Rural civilization was once a civilization characterized by a harmony between humans and the environment. But intensive agricultural production, to a certain extent, carries the pollution characteristics of modern industry. Meanwhile, while the country moves from an agrarian society to an industrial society, the structure of the rural industry and the way of living of the farmers have also undergone fundamental changes. In some developed regions in particular, the secondary industry featuring rural enterprises has replaced agriculture to become the principal industry in the rural areas. As a result of the growing concentration of rural dwellings, towns and townships and even natural villages are assuming the characteristics of urbanization and making the environmental problems in the urban areas also common in the rural areas. According to statistics and investigations in the past decade indicate that the environmental pollution in the process of rural modernization can be classified into three categories according to the different sources of pollution:

1. The pollution arising from the overuse of modern means of agricultural production

With a huge population and scarce land resources, China has seen the development of its land resources approaching the limits. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has become the main way to raise the unit land output, and, in addition tothe larger amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides consumed in the rapid development of fruit and vegetable production, has also turned China into the largest chemical fertilizer and pesticide user in the world. It uses 46.37 million tons of chemical fertilizers a year[1]. Converted into unit cultivated area, the use of chemical fertilizers is 40 tons per square kilometers, far exceeding the ceiling of 22.5 tons per square kilometers set by the developed countries for preventing land and water bodies from being damaged by chemical fertilizers. The irrational structure of fertilizer use has led to a low rate of utilization and a high rate of loss. This has not only polluted the soil, but also aggravated the organic and eutrophic pollution of the water bodies through farmland runoff and even affected the groundwater and air. Currently, surface-sourced pollution in many regions in the east has exceeded industrial pollution in terms of pollution burden. The cause analysis of the eutrophication of the Taihu Lake and the Hangzhou Gulf also indicates that the source of pollution that has eutrophicated water bodies mainly comes from domestic sewage and the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland. In particular, the surface-sourced pollutants in the Taihu Lake has accounted for more than one-third of the total nitrogen and nearly one-third of the total phosphorus. Each year, China uses about 1.3 million tons of pesticides, of which, only about one-third is absorbed by crops. Most of the remaining portion goes into water bodies, soil and farm products, which directly threatens the health of human beings. A monitoring of the vegetable wholesale markets in 16 provincial capitals in 2002 indicated that 20-60 percent of the products were found to contain pesticides and 20-45 percent of them were found to exceed the limits, which were far higher than that of the developed countries. In short, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have turned the pollution of the water environment in China’s eastern regions from the conventional point-sourced pollution to the compound pollution that comprises both surface-sourced and point-sourced pollution. They have also directly damaged the agriculture-adjunct ecological system and posed a huge threat to the existence of wildlife.

Due to the popularization of greenhouse farming, mulch film pollution has also become serious. China now ranks first in the world in terms of mulch film use and coverage. In 2003, more than 600,000 tons of mulch film was used. Mulch film pollution has caused alarming damages in developed regions. A partial investigation conducted in 2002 by the Zhejiang Provincial Bureau for Environmental Protection indicated that the average amount of mulch film residue in the investigated areas was 3.78 tons per square kilometers, which caused crop loss equivalent to about 20 percent of the output value. As agricultural modernization advances in the central and western regions, this kind of pollution has also appeared in the main grain-producing areas in these regions.

In addition, some pollution derives from modernization. For example, because of the popularization of chemical fertilizers and the adjustment of fuel structure, stalks have become a waste instead of a valuable material. The farmers just burn them in the fields. The air pollution arising from stalk burning not only affects the rural environment but also causes great damage to the urban areas and even affects aircraft take-off and landing.

2. The pollution arising from the poor planning for villages and other rural settlements and the poor environmental management

As modernization gains momentum, the scales of rural settlements have been rapidly expanding. But in the course of building new towns, new villages and new houses, planning and infrastructure construction have been lagging behind: with either no environmental planning or uncoordinated planning. Attention is focused only on the compilation of the master plans of towns, neglecting the organic links of these plans with the plans for land use, environmental protection and industrial development. The rural settlements simply have no planning at all. As a result, the towns and rural settlements either develop in a belt shape along highways or mingle with industrial zones. Because of the lack of infrastructure and control, the domestic pollutants from the towns and rural settlements are generally discharged directly into the adjacent environment, making the environment dirty, messy and inferior. For example, the rural domestic garbage totaling about 120 million tons a year is almost entirely piled in the open air and the rural domestic sewage totaling 25 million tons a year is almost discharged directly. As a result, the environmental quality around the rural settlements has seriously deteriorated. The partial investigation conducted in 2002 by the Zhejiang Provincial Bureau for Environmental Protection indicated that except for the air-pollution indicator, all other environmental indicators of the rural settlements were already worse than in the urban areas.

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[1] China Statistical Yearbook 2005.