BEIJING (Reuters) - China must show patience in its "long war" against widespread soil pollution, the environment ministry said this week, with the country facing a clean-up bill that could reach as high as 1 trillion yuan ($146.39 billion).
Beijing has promised to draw up new policies and set up a dedicated fund to deal with large stretches of polluted soil caused by overmining, industrial wastewater runoffs or excessive pesticide and fertiliser use.
But it said in an action plan published last year that it would aim to "stabilize" worsening soil pollution by the end of this decade and only start to make improvements by 2030.
Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday, Qiu Qiwen, head of the soil environment department of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), said the cost of cleaning up one mu (0.066 hectares) of polluted farmland in China could reach as much as 20,000 yuan ($2,928.86).
According to the last nationwide survey published in 2013, about 50 million mu (3.33 million hectares) of China's farmland - an area the size of Belgium - was too polluted to grow crops. That would put total clean-up costs at 1 trillion yuan.
"Soil pollution does not form overnight and the problem cannot be solved overnight," said Qiu, adding that China "must have patience to fight the long war ahead".
Analysts say China's soil clean-up will provide lucrative business opportunities for a growing number of specialist environmental firms, but it is still unclear who will foot the bill, especially in the countryside.
Qiu said Beijing has already allocated a budget of 14.6 billion yuan to cover nationwide soil remediation projects from last year until the end of the first half of 2017.
One firm already benefiting from that fund is Beijing Geoenviron Engineering & Technology, which said last month that a 121.9 million yuan project in southwest China to remediate soil contaminated by heavy metals would be financed by the government.
"Treating and recovering polluted soil is very difficult and costly, and requires a long cycle," Qiu said.
He said China would publish the results of its latest survey on soil pollution after 2020. It will also identify polluted farmland and assess its impact on the quality of agricultural products by the end of next year.
Some of the measures being considered to clean up China's soil include rotating crops and turning farmland into forest, Qiu said.
Reporting by Hallie Gu and David Stanway; Editing by Joseph Radford