Soy Sauce or Water? China’s Soil Contamination and Water Supply

by Phoebe Shum

For many Americans, the term “local” food usually coincides with sustainability, farmer’s markets, and everything environmental. This is not the case in modern day China. In fact, it is the very opposite. He-Guangwei, investigative reporter for The Times Weekly, explains that China’s rapid modernisation has brought about severe stress on the agricultural soil quality. The contamination in soil has brought about a myriad of other problems such as water quality degradation due to heavy metal pollution and cancer-caused deaths. In particular, Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China that supplies drinking water to more than 30 million people, has become so polluted as a result of factory run-off. The water has even been described to resemble soy sauce. It’s devastating to see that the once crystal-clear waters of Lake Tai now have the ability to turn people’s sweat into a color resembling mud. Farmers around the Lake Tai area refuse to eat the very crops they grow, fully aware that their produce is planted in cadmium, lead and mercury infused soil. The government remains unresponsive to the scale of the issue, wary of attracting negative media and international attention.

While the country’s recent economic development has brought about increased wealth and better living conditions for a small percentage of it’s citizens, China’s decision to pursue short-term economic growth at the expense of the environment for the past three decades has finally caught up to them. In the 1990s, government officials were solely concerned about GDP, and didn’t mind building factories and chemical plants near areas of civilization as long as there was economic profit involved. As a result, 19% of China’s farmland is now contaminated, and more than 3 million hectares of arable land is classified as moderately polluted.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection has promised an action plan that will use economic incentives to promote soil restoration. But it won’t be easy to counteract the heavy damages that contaminated soil has caused. China will have to pay the price for the soil that has afflicted villages with cancer, reduced harvest cycles, and caused much of Chinese food to be viewed as unsafe for consumption.

This is the first of three articles that Guangwei featured on soil pollution in China. It is a joint project between Yale Environment 360 and Chinadialogue. Hopefully this is the beginning of many.

Guangwei, He. 2014. China’s Dirty Pollution Secret: The Boom Poisoned Its Soil and Crops. Yale Environment 360. June 30 2014

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