The Chinese central government’s recently released “No. 1 document” for 2021 (the first policy document of the year setting out its priorities) emphasises a strong push for new rounds of rural revitalisation and positions rural revitalisation as crucial to bringing about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Hence, the policy of focusing on public infrastructure development in rural areas is set to continue.
Coincidentally, I conducted field interviews and investigations at numerous “natural villages” (those that mushroomed on their own) and administrative villages when I went home to celebrate the Spring Festival. I compared each of their available infrastructures under such rural revitalisation plans and discovered some serious and distressing cases of resource misallocation, as well as instances of over-emphasising some areas while neglecting others. I have thus written this article in the hope that such decision-making approaches and behavioural outcomes will not be repeated and coarsely duplicated in the new round of rural revitalisation.
The toilet test
A concerted “Toilet Revolution” campaign has been underway in China’s rural areas for the last three years. An enormous amount of money has been poured in to say the least. In the past two years alone, the central government allocated and invested as much as 17 billion RMB on this project. Coupled with local follow-on funding, at least 30 billion RMB worth of public funds have been spent on the renovation and construction of rural toilets. Across the country, apart from the villages in a few Chinese provinces which have one toilet per household, most natural villages only have one or two public toilets per village.
As a saying goes, “a material civilisation is judged by how well the kitchen is equipped, while a spiritual civilisation is judged by the state of the toilet”. Newly-built toilets are a symbol of rural revitalisation and have indeed changed villagers’ bad habits of urinating and defecating in open pits or in their own dry toilets, and has helped to alleviate the problem of nonpoint-source pollution deriving from these bad habits. They have also raised the villagers’ awareness of good hygiene and inculcated these good habits in them. However, a look at the usage efficiency and practical value of these new toilets makes one sigh again.
Poo problems not to be pooh-poohed
As many of China’s villages have yet to gain access to running water — even in the cases where running water is available, water facilities are not extended to the toilet — many newly-built rural toilets are dry toilets. This means that the feces accumulated in the pit would not only give off a pungent smell but also attract mosquitoes and flies in summer. At the same time, as public toilets are quite a distance away from all households, even if villagers are not in a hurry to use the toilet, during winter in particular, farmers are unwilling to run to the toilet in the cold and would choose to use their own lavatories as per normal. Besides, even in the case of public restrooms equipped with flush toilets, due to the lack of an underground sewage system, human waste would also not have been readily treated, flowing into septic tanks instead and creating a new source of concentrated pollution.
... the many rural toilets that cost a bomb to build either became “awkward toilets” or “empty toilets” — their practical value and usage rate are extremely low and can only be counted as a “makeover project” of the village-level public management team at best.
Not only that, in the rare cases where individual households are equipped with flush toilets, villagers have to pay for feces treatment services, ranging from 50 RMB per visit to a whopping 400 RMB per visit in some cases (according to household size). Out of cost considerations, many households choose not to use their newly-built toilets and stick to their traditional methods instead. Thus, just as described in a Xinhua report on villages in Shenyang some time ago, the many rural toilets that cost a bomb to build either became “awkward toilets” or “empty toilets” — their practical value and usage rate are extremely low and can only be counted as a “makeover project” of the village-level public management team at best.
Where has all the clear water gone?
Apart from the “Toilet Revolution”, equally actively promoted in rural villages is the dredging and restoration of irrigation ponds. Following the adoption of the contract responsibility system, farmers have gradually given up hog breeding and cannot pour their domestic waste into the pig pens to make fertiliser which would be later transported to the fields in a closed-loop farming cycle. Coupled with the lack of domestic garbage disposal and treatment facilities like the ones in the city, rural households have been dumping all their rubbish into the irrigation ponds surrounding the village. In the long run, the ponds, which were originally crystal clear and a childhood playground for many, have become rubbish-filled and a polluted paradise where mice and flies come out to play instead.
In my hometown of Hubei, over 70,000 officials at the provincial, city and county levels have gone down to over 26,000 villages to oversee these projects, and a total of 8 billion RMB has been invested in the span of one and a half years to restore 200,000 irrigation ponds.
To repair and restore the rural environment and rebuild water conservation facilities (the original ponds were meant to collect water and act as a source of water for arable land), the central and local governments have forked out a lot of money and resources to dredge and restore the rubbish-filled irrigation ponds. In my hometown of Hubei, over 70,000 officials at the provincial, city and county levels have gone down to over 26,000 villages to oversee these projects, and a total of 8 billion RMB has been invested in the span of one and a half years to restore 200,000 irrigation ponds.
However, even as the ponds are being filled with clear water once again, another distressing phenomenon is being seen. The dredged-up rotten rubbish is not sent away to be treated but instead dumped on the arable land beside it, covering and swallowing up valuable farmland resources. Also, much of the rubbish that has been dredged up are non-biodegradable materials such as plastic and even empty cans of pesticide which are now seriously polluting the environment for the second time after being re-exposed to the sun. Much more worrying is the fact that a large volume of domestic wastewater would flow into the ponds once more as there are no underground pipelines in the villages. It is highly possible that the painstakingly cleared irrigation ponds would become sewage ponds again after some time.
Roadworks hit a bumpy road
New toilets and irrigation ponds aside, the biggest change in the rural scenery is probably the roads that now run through each farming village. It is much easier for the farming folk to visit one another and go to the market. Such infrastructure also allows farm produce to be sold throughout the country and even overseas, and those from farming families who work away from their hometown can now drive right up to the door of their old homes.
However, village roads in most areas are constructed according to a grand plan but are not properly maintained or rebuilt based on people’s changing needs, leading to poor driving experiences. In fact, they could become a weak link that would hamper the logistical efficiency and supply distribution of farming villages.
Initially, village roads were constructed using public budget subsidies and gathering funds from farming households, but because of a lack of public funds and household financial means, in many villages, road foundations are only 3.5 metres wide, which means the road surface is even narrower. But a family saloon is already about 1.6 metres wide, and it is difficult for two cars to pass each other on a 3.5-metre wide road — one slip might lead to an accident in a pool of mud or a ditch.
And so, out of safety considerations, whenever there is a car coming from the other direction, the party that is more aware might slowly reverse and give way; but if both drivers do not give way, either both sides are stuck in a faceoff, or they argue until they are red in the face, which makes village roads a place where rural disputes can escalate. Also, due to lack of maintenance and management, an increasing number of village roads today are in disrepair and lined with weeds, and it is nerve-wracking to drive on an uneven road, with noises coming from either side.
And it is an undeniable fact that the cleanliness and safety of the underground water in farming villages is getting worse due to pollution from industrial activity, fertilisers and agricultural chemicals, the rearing of animals, and human activity.
Clean water on tap
I once went to Jiangxi to study the new farming villages there. Each time I saw that villages had clean, safe tap water, I was envious. When I went back to my hometown for Chinese New Year, I found that the nearby villages also had tap water. But along with the excitement, there was also pain, because I heard from many villagers that apart from using this tap water for irrigation and washing up, they did not dare to drink it directly. Those who were better off installed filters or bought bottled water so that their water expenses stayed the same, while the majority of less wealthy farming households made do with drinking the tap water.
This is because unlike the tap water in urban areas that comes from rivers and streams and undergoes rigorous filtering and processing, the tap water in farming villages comes from wells. And it is an undeniable fact that the cleanliness and safety of the underground water in farming villages is getting worse due to pollution from industrial activity, fertilisers and agricultural chemicals, the rearing of animals, and human activity.
... the approach cannot be as fragmented as before, but a scientific approach should be taken in coming up with mid- to long-term plans for rural infrastructure, which should be systematically and holistically driven.
Sample tests of underground water in 28 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities conducted by Dalian University of Technology and the University of Kitakyushu showed that rural wells contained 1,300 types of organic micropollutants (OMPs) and 25 metals, with manganese and selenium at exceedingly high levels. Of 42 carcinogens found, 38 were OMPs, and the risk of cancer was more than one in 10,000. Of course, it might be difficult for uninformed farming folk to receive such information, but seeing more and more people around them being diagnosed with cancer over the past few years would make them more wary about the tap water.
By the looks of it, there are areas in rural revitalisation that miss the mark and need to be considered and corrected. At least the approach cannot be as fragmented as before, but a scientific approach should be taken in coming up with mid- to long-term plans for rural infrastructure, which should be systematically and holistically driven.
On the one hand, there should be a construction schedule for the rural underground pipe network. Without this firm foundation, even the best surface facilities would be short-lived and impractical decorations. And because such infrastructure would take an enormous amount of time and money, effective waste and garbage processing facilities for pollutants have to be installed in farming villages during this transition period to prevent new sources of pollutants and disease from cropping up.
On the other hand, rural infrastructure construction should be closely coordinated with industrial revitalisation. For example, pushing for ecoagriculture, building up smart farming, eco-friendly animal husbandry, and digitalised logistics, as well as including agricultural production, processing, transport, and consumption in ecological protection, and highlighting the leading role of environmental protection in rural revitalisation, More importantly, just as in cities, there should be a system of regulation and protection for rural infrastructures, such as taking reference from the “river chiefs” and “forest chiefs” systems found in many places, to install various levels of people in charge of maintaining rural toilets, roads, and ponds, and to roll out the necessary rural protection and regulatory systems.
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