In light of growing concerns over environmental problems, China has established policies and programs aimed at establishing a harmonious relationship between human activities and nature [1
]. Environmental awareness is assumed to be an important prerequisite of environmental protection, and one the most important indicators of China’s current striving toward more systemic progress that takes socio-environmental relations into account. Therefore, fostering environmental awareness is of great importance to enhance the effectiveness and responsiveness of environmental management policies and strengthen public engagement. In order to improve environmental awareness, the first priority is to understand current public levels [2
Historically, the development of environmental awareness among the Chinese public and decision-makers since the early 1970s has been greatly influenced by Western practices and the promotion of environmental discourses and best practices by the United Nations. A key event in the promotion of environmental awareness in China was the first National Conference on Environmental Protection, held in 1973, which laid the foundation for the first policies aimed at curbing pollution [3
]. Since then, people have gradually realized the relationship between economic development and environmental degradation. In the 1990s, China’s reforms achieved remarkable economic development by shifting from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one. However, reforms caused a number of serious social and environmental issues, including the degradation of water quality [5
]. Meanwhile, the environmental crisis further spurred the increase in environmental awareness. The former State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA, now the Ministry of Ecological Environment) increased environmental awareness in China. In 1992, SEPA and the State Education Commission jointly held the first National Environmental Education Work Conference, which was aimed at enhancing environment awareness [7
In recent years, Chinese authorities have made considerable efforts to speed up the environmental protection process, pursue new policies and regulations, establish environmental information disclosure systems, and institutionalize public participation in environmental decision-making. However, environmental governance involves multiple stakeholders who must work together to manage risk and safeguard their own interests. Since the 1970s, environmental protection has become one of the core tasks of the government. The central government of China, along with local government, the agency of the policy implementation, began to give more priority to environmental concerns for policy-making [1
]. These efforts have been targeted at improving administrative enforcement, environmental transparency, and environmental awareness [3
]. Nevertheless, according to the Chinese livelihood index for environmental protection, China’s public environmental awareness is still low, relevant public engagement is not high, and environmental satisfaction levels are inadequate [11
]. The 18th People’s Congress in 2012 clearly emphasized the promotion of ecological civilization to a strategic level and the popularization ecological civilization, so that all people can form a shared consciousness of environmental protection and practice care for the ecological environment [13
In-depth and comprehensive surveys and research on public environmental awareness in China have been conducted in recent years. Several studies in three main river watersheds (the Huaihe, Haihe and Liaohe rivers), three main lake watersheds (Tai, Chao, and Dianchi lakes), and Songhua River Basin of China focus on the knowledge of environmental conditions and stakeholders’ participation in environmental protection [14
]. These studies involve many stakeholders, such as all citizens (Chinese Public Environmental Protection and People’s Livelihood index, 2008), citizens in big cities [18
], college students [19
], tourists, and residents of the tourism community [20
]. Results show that due to low environmental awareness, people often show little enthusiasm for environmental participation [22
However, these studies are mostly concerned with measuring the level of understanding of environmentally-related concepts at a certain point in time. As such, they lack a diachronic, dynamic perspective. Also, they do not reflect the connection with environmental management. In this respect, little attention has been given to the link between changes in environmental awareness and implemented environmental management policies [22
]. In the context of ecological civilization construction [13
] and rural-to-urban labor migration [24
], little effort has been made to understand change over time of awareness, which could reflect the effects of public dissemination and education, and their capacities to stimulate a public sense of responsibility [18
]. Understanding the change in environmental awareness would be particularly important in areas that are undergoing rapid development and social change, such as rural areas in China. Thus, understanding relationships among environmental behavior, perception, attitude, and overall environmental awareness is increasingly important to policy-makers and social scientists [25
Environmental awareness can be defined as the ability of an individual to understand the connection existing between: (a) human activities, (b) the current status of environmental quality [26
], and (c) his/her willingness to take part in environment activities [28
]. Based on such an understanding, some studies have divided environmental awareness into three components: environmental knowledge, attitude, and concern [29
]. It may be affected by a number of variables, including cognitive attitudes, life experiences, demographics, behavioral motivations, and intentions [30
]. For the purpose of our paper, we define environmental awareness as consisting of three components: environmental behavior, perception, and attitude.
Environmental behavior is defined as the complex of activities informed by a concern for future generations, other species, or the whole ecosystem [31
]. Environmental perception refers to the knowledge of, or feelings about, the environment, and the act of understanding the environment through our senses [33
]. It is the understanding of the environment resulting from visual, auditory, and tactile experience, and also by information disclosure. It can reflect the respondents’ degree of satisfaction with the water quality [34
]. Finally, environmental attitude refers to the emotional response of people to environmental problems, which may trigger positive action for the environment. It is assumed to relate to the core principle of environmental awareness [35
], and be affected by local institutions [36
]. Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen grassroots management by making the village committee more effective for the villagers. On the other hand, providing well-reasoned, data-based, and logical messages, such as environmental management policies and plans, environmental impacts, the costs of environmental protection, and benefits from environmental protection should be effective in improving the credibility of the government. Thereby, the willingness of respondents to adopt certain management measures will increase [37
Based on these three aspects, this paper addresses shortcomings in the literature mentioned above by focusing on changes in environmental awareness among rural communities and their relation to environmental management measures. In terms of behavior, we focus on methods of household garbage and feces disposal, which could cause non-point pollution by rainfall runoff, if not properly handled. With regard to perception, we analyze the perceived environmental quality of water among targeted communities. Finally, with reference to attitude, we focus on the response of communities to governmental environmental management measures and their willingness to contribute to their implementation. Besides providing evidence of changes in awareness over time, our study also seeks individual correlations between local environmental management institutions and environmental awareness. Finally, we analyze how the perception of worsening environmental pollution may alter public behavior.
2. Study Area
The Miyun Reservoir basin is located north of Beijing, and the Miyun reservoir is the main source of drinking water for Beijing (Figure 1
). Mountains account for 80% of this drainage area, and there is 72.5% forest coverage. Since 2005, adhering to the principle of “high standard, low cost, affordable, and popularizing” set by the Miyun government, Miyun county has implemented various policies and measures, such as returning farmland back to forests, using conservation tillage, encouraging garbage disposal, and strengthening sewage treatment in the county. This has contributed to improving the rural environment, reducing non-point source pollution, and protecting the Miyun Reservoir.
Three villages—Fangmayu (FMY), Lishugou (LSG), and Wangzhuang (WZ)—located in the conservation zone were selected as representative of the local environmental and socioeconomic conditions. According to Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law of the People’s Republic of China (2008 Revision), building, rebuilding, or expanding construction projects discharging of pollutants into drinking water sources are banned in this conservation zone. The type and demographic information of the sample villages are listed in Table 1
. LSG and WZ are eco-villages (shengtai cun) whose declared goal is to become more socially, culturally, economically, and ecologically sustainable [39
]. In order to prevent Miyun Reservoir from receiving agricultural non-point source pollution, these two villages have partially transformed their development model from agricultural-based to one that is centered on ecological tourism. The main sources of income for residents of LSG and WZ are agriculture (corn, fruit), forestry, and rural tourism. FMY is located in the southeast of the Miyun Reservoir watershed. It is an agri-village (nongye cun) and the biggest of the sample villages with nearly 2000 residents. Its leading industries are agriculture and breeding. In recent decades, the Miyun Reservoir has experienced serious eutrophication due to non-point source pollution. Studies have shown that the reservoir has been severely polluted by rural and agriculture activities [40
4.1. Demographic and Socioeconomic Characteristics
lists the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the study’s sample. Respondents range in age from 18 to over 60 years old. In 2006, middle-aged people (35–60 years old) composed the majority (69.6%) of the sample. In 2015, the age of the main group of respondents was between 45–60 years old, which was the same percentage as people over 60 (39.5%), indicating an aging of the rural population. This is in line with other studies done in China, showing how the one-child policy has been a central factor in a rapid change in the Chinese age structure [47
The migration of the young labor force to the city has been another factor resulting in an aging rural population. Education level ranges from illiterate to college or higher. The majority of respondents graduated from junior high school in 2006. However, there was an increase in education level in 2015. Those attaining a high school degree increased from 8.8% to 20.2%. Transformations of the economic structure produced significant changes of the main source of livelihood in surveyed communities. Traditional agriculture is no longer the main source of income; i.e., the percentage of households whose main income is from farming declined from 89.6% in 2006 to 13.2% in 2015. Now, the main sources of income are remittance from migrant workers (up from 1.6% to 51.2% of households) and rural tourism (from 0.0% to 19.4% in 2015). The improvement in social welfare, combined with the aging of the population, resulted in a higher percentage of people whose main source of income is from government subsidies (14.7% in 2015).
4.2. Comprehensive Index of Environmental Awareness
Local respondents’ environmental awareness was assessed from the combination of environmental behavior, environmental perception, and attitude toward environmental improvement according to the AHP model introduced in Section 3.3
. The results are listed in Table 8
The T-test showed that the overall environmental awareness (p < 0.0001), perception (p < 0.0001), and behavior (p = 0.004) had significant differences between 2006–2015. The total index increased from 47.77 to 52.97, which was mainly due to improvements in environmental behavior (9.41 to 11.23) and environmental perception (10.9 to 14.74). Along with the strengthening of rural infrastructure, the treatment of domestic sewage (17.92 to 36.98) and livestock manure (33.28 to 56.98) also improved. However, due to mismanagement, the level of domestic garbage treatment decreased, from 62.88 to 42.09. Environmental degradation greatly improved people’s awareness of water quality and water pollution. No significant change in attitude toward environmental improvement was found (p = 0.636). However, a small decrease (27.46 in 2006 to 27.0 in 2015) was detected, showing a more negative predisposition toward environmental responsibility, government policy and measures, and residents’ willingness to pay for environmental improvement.
Residence has often been considered to exert substantial influence on a respondent’s environmental awareness [23
]. According to Figure 3
, in 2006, the total index for the eco-villages (LSG and WZ) was significantly higher than for the agri-village (FMY) based on the T-test (sig. < 0.0001).
Over the last decade, LSG and WZ shifted from traditional agriculture to a tourism-based economy. Moreover, local authorities in these two villages devoted great attention to the development of wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure. Against this general background, the total index was supposed to increase, but there was actually a decline in the total index for LSG. The reason for this decline was that there was a large restaurant upstream of the village, which discharged wastewater without treatment. This appears to have impacted villagers’ attitudes. Many thought that whoever causes pollution should be responsible for its treatment. In FMY, farming was still the main economic source. Although local policies have been implemented to return farmland to forest, many people still rely on planting chestnuts or corn. Since the rural development model has not changed, grassroots management caused the total index to remain the same.
In 2006, males had a better environmental awareness than females, while in 2015, the reverse was evident, suggesting that women’s environmental awareness improved, which is consistent with previous research [49
]. The cause of this reversal may lie in migration patterns. In the past, farming was mostly taken care of by men, who therefore developed a better understanding of their environment surroundings than females [14
]. However, in recent years, most males choose to seek employment in big cities, while females stayed in the village and bore more responsibilities for the family, including ensuring food safety and family health [50
]. Therefore, women are more concerned about environmental quality, report stronger environmental attitudes, and exhibit higher levels of behavioral adjustments compared with men [34
Similar to other studies, young adults had higher environmental awareness [52
]. This group has more opportunities to access environmental information through modern technology, and can better understand the causes and impact of water pollution [23
Education level had a significant influence on environmental awareness in 2006, which is in line with published literature, showing a strong correlation with education [14
]. The environmental awareness of illiterate people was the lowest. Respondents with primary and middle school education had a relatively high level of environmental awareness.
Compared with 2006, the environmental awareness of illiterate respondents and those with a high school education level in 2015 greatly increased. The increased importance and visibility of environmental problems resulted in people of different education levels having a relatively balanced environmental awareness in 2015.
4.3. Analysis of Changes in Environmental Behavior
Environmental behavior includes individual behavior in everyday life, and is measured by the participation behavior in the field of environmental protection and oversight. Among these, the daily behavior of residents is commonly deemed to be the most important feature [53
]. From 2005, due to an improvement in wastewater treatment and manure disposal, environmental behavior increased from 37.65 to 44.9 between 2006–2015. Behavior toward domestic garbage treatment deteriorated (Table 5
), due to a lack of management of garbage cans and classification processing.
Different groups of people had different behavioral changes, as shown in Figure 4
. There is evidence that environmental management may affect environmental behavior. The two eco-villages (LSG and WZ) are equipped with facilities for sewage treatment, which contribute to the good performance of the behavior index. This is higher than for FMY, where no substantial improvement in wastewater infrastructure has been made. Men and women began to show a more balanced behavior index, with the increase in the female index and the decrease in the male index during the survey period.
Older people seemed to behave better than young people in 2015. Education played a vital role in the respondents’ behavior. Compared with people with a low education level, respondents with a high school education and above had a higher environmental behavior index than those with a junior high school and below education level.
4.3.1. Wastewater Treatment
In many rural areas, wastewater treatment is rare. Wastewater is very often directly released into fresh water bodies. Many households in the rural parts of Beijing do not have public sewers, and must therefore depend on on-site treatment systems, such as infiltration pools and septic tanks, or discharge directly into watercourses, yards, streets, or other places [54
]. All of these behaviors contribute to environmental degradation for water, which often does not meet quality standards.
In October 2005, the Chinese government put forward the strategic plan “New Socialist Countryside Construction” [55
]. Methods for improving the living environment and dealing with domestic wastewater in rural areas have remained an urgent concern for the China State Council and State Environment Protection Administration [54
]. As a consequence, infiltration pools as a means of sewage treatment decreased sharply by 35.42%, and more people chose to discharge sewage into a sewer (17% to a sewer without treatment and 26.4% to a sewer with treatment). In spite of the sewage treatment facilities, most respondents did not change their behavior, and approximately half of the respondents still poured wastewater in their yard or on the street for convenience. This behavior causes pollutants to be carried into rivers with storm runoff. Clearly, many respondents could not realize the potential pollution resulting from this behavior.
4.3.2. Daily Garbage Treatment
The management of solid waste in rural areas is a major issue at present [56
]. Rural solid waste is dominated by food residue, coal ash, etc. In China, rural solid waste for the most part is still randomly discarded without proceeding any treatment [57
]. Garbage that goes into the trash can smell rotten because of a lack of effective management, such as sorting and timely clean up. Illegally dumped kitchen waste and decayed straw waste cause terrible smells (see Figure 5
). This will also cause non-point source pollution due to rainfall erosion.
The results show that more than 50% of people threw garbage into the trash in 2006 and 2015, but the behavior of casually dumping rubbish has worsened, increasing from 24.8% in 2006 to 42.97% in 2015. Moreover, waste sorting reduced significantly, from 13.6% in 2006 to 1.56% in 2015. This clearly shows a huge deficiency in terms of waste management in the surveyed villages. From the interview data, we found that although the government advocates garbage sorting, the effect of relevant campaigns was not good and did not reach expected outcomes. Moreover, the considerable distance from trash cans in distance is discouraging people from using them. In fact, more and more people just throw rubbish in places such as dried-up river beds or by the roadside (Figure 5
4.3.3. Feces Treatment
Human and animal manure is a valuable source of nutrients [58
]. In 2005, traditional agriculture was the main industry in the surveyed area, and most people used manure as fertilizer, which caused the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus, eventually resulting in water eutrophication. Following the principles of sustainable development and the ensuing evolution of agricultural practices, and due to the efficiency and convenience of chemical fertilizer use, the results show that the application of human and animal feces as fertilizer has dramatically decreased from 88% in 2006 to 34.92% in 2015 (See Table 9
). This decreased non-point source pollution runoff from the surface. Therefore, manure is dealt with by special personnel who clean it up, instead of directly disposing it as agricultural fertilizer.
4.4. Analysis of Changes in Water Quality Perception
The perception index of water quality increased from 35.16 to 47.56 as more people began to realize that the condition of the water environment was getting worse. Figure 6
shows a general increase in water perception between 2006–2015. Differences were found among the villages. People living in FMY had a higher index than people living in the other two villages. WZ and LSG had relatively better water quality than FMY.
On the other hand, the stream crossing FMY from north to south was characterized in 2015 by severe eutrophication and filled with garbage. Respondents living in FMY clearly judged water pollution from what they saw, and believed that water quality was not good. Females had a heightened perception compared with males. The results show that middle-aged and older respondents (over 35 years old) had a better perception than younger respondents (18–34 years old). The older respondents and females focused more on water environment, which is related to people’s health. Also, villagers with a higher education level had a better knowledge of water pollution than those with a lower education level.
4.4.1. Perception of Water Quality
showed that respondents’ concern for the pollution situation has increased. The number of people who thought water quality was “normal” declined from 68.6% to 51.2% between 2006–2015. At the same time, the number of those who perceived water quality as poor increased from 8.0% (2006) to 23.3% (2015). People considering water pollution a serious or very serious issue increased from 27.2% to 45.7%. The number of villagers who were unclear about the pollution situation decreased by about 10%. Half of the respondents thought water was not polluted in 2006, which decreased to 40.3% in 2015. Results clearly show that respondents began to realize that water quality had seriously deteriorated between 2006–2015, though not all of them did. This may be because environmental information disclosure has only had a limited penetration among rural communities.
4.4.2. Source of Water Pollution
At the study sites, sources of diffuse water pollution includes runoff from agricultural land, which contains substances including pest control products, sewage sludge, and manure. In addition, both industrial enterprises and rural tourism can cause rural pollution. The villagers’ awareness of the causes of water pollution changed dramatically between 2006–2015. About 60% of respondents in 2015 thought that wastewater and household garbage polluted river water, which was a higher proportion than in 2006 (40%).
Also, the improvement of living conditions produced more waste. Although infrastructure has developed, it still cannot entirely meet the needs of local residents. Combined with the inconsistent management of infrastructure, wastewater and domestic garbage are still a major problem in rural villages. In some areas, the economic development model shifted from traditional agriculture to agri-tourism. As such, while the use of pesticide chemical fertilizer has greatly reduced, new pollution sources have emerged. Agri-tourism was identified as a main source of pollution by 6.7% of respondents. In order to safeguard the Miyun Reservoir, local governments have restricted the development of in-house or refined animal production, but there are still some free-range livestock. Due to changes in the development of rural areas, livestock manure is no longer used as farmland fertilizer. However, improper disposal was a main source of pollution, according to 13.4% of respondents. The results show that the percentage of those who had no idea about the main pollution sources decreased by half, from 28.8% in 2006 to 14.0% in 2015. Answers provided in 2015 also reflect a change in major sources of water pollution, with new sources from eco-tourism facilities accounting for 6.2%.
4.4.3. Access to Environmental Information
Environmental awareness is affected by formal and informal education [59
]. Environmental information is essential for rural residents to have an objective understanding of environmental conditions. Most respondents learned environmental information from different sources (Table 10
The most common access was public media (71.2% in 2006 and 49.6% in 2015), such as television, internet, computer, and mobile phones. Compared with a decade ago, more people began to be concerned about environmental issues through their own initiative by communicating with others (3.2% in 2006 and 14.7% in 2015) or through their direct experience (meaning that it is directly experienced through the senses of the interviewed person) (4.8% in 2006 and 15.5% in 2015), such as what they saw and what they feel about changes in environmental conditions. This is similar to research in developing countries where families and mass media were perceived of being the most common information source [60
]. With reference to the government sector, government training is beginning to be a new source of information.
4.5. Analysis of Changes in Attitude Toward Environmental Improvement
The attitude toward environmental improvement includes villagers’ responsibility to improve the environment, attitude toward environmental protection measures, and willingness to pay for environmental protection. Figure 7
shows that female had a relatively positive attitude toward environmental improvement compared with males. The attitude toward environmental improvement in LSG decreased greatly. On-the-spot investigation and the interview showed that the main reason was that there was a large restaurant located just west of LSG. Wastewater from the restaurant made its way to the downstream village, resulting in water pollution. Therefore, respondents thought it was the restaurant that had to bear the responsibility for environmental improvement. This demonstrates that if a point source can be blamed as the major source of pollution, people might become less responsible, overlooking the impacts of their individual activities on the environment.
4.5.1. Responsibility to Improve the Environment
With reference to the issue of who should bear the responsibility of improving the environment, little change occurred over the 10 years considered in our study (Table 11
). Those who thought environmental improvement should be the responsibility of both individuals and the government accounted for 63.2% in 2006 and 62.0% in 2015. Similarly, people who thought that government authorities should entirely bear this responsibility accounted for 31.2% in 2006 and 32.6% in 2015. Only about 5% of respondents thought there was no need to improve the environment. From these results, we can conclude that the idea that addressing environmental issues requires collective action (i.e., individuals and organizations, including government authorities) remains prevalent in the surveyed area.
4.5.2. Attitude Toward Environmental Protection Measures
Environmental protection measures are intended as measures implemented by government authorities to prevent and control non-point source water pollution. The number of respondents who would comply with the directives of local government and those who thought that government policy is not effective increased, while the number of those strongly supporting government policies decreased (Table 11
). This suggests that more people have lost their initiative to improve water quality and would rely rather passively on the government to take action to protect the environment.
4.5.3. Changes in Willingness to Pay for Improvement in the Water Environment
In 2006, a substantial proportion of the respondents had relatively positive attitudes toward the payment of fees to pay for the improved management of the water environment (Table 11
). Roughly 66.4% of respondents said that they were either willing to pay for government-provided services (40.8%), or just comply with the direction made by local government (25.6%). In 2015, no clear change was detected with reference to the willingness to pay (40.0%). However, the percentage of those who would follow government suggestions on the issue declined by 10% (down from 25.6% to 15%). Conversely, the percentage of those who would rather follow the general trend (e.g., such as following the advice from family and friends) increased from 8.0% to 15.7%.
The reasons for the decrease in people’s support of possible water management measures for which they would have to pay may vary. One of the factors impacting people’s attitude could be declining confidence in the ability of the village committees. Moreover, a few interviewees commented that if they paid, they could not be sure that their money would be actually used for strengthening management of the water environment. This indicates both a lack of transparency in public information, and a lack of trust in government institutions.
AHP results show that environmental attitudes have a weight of 0.5 in environmental awareness, a weight of 0.33 for environmental behavior, and a weight of 0.17 for environmental awareness. This shows that environmental attitude is the most important. It is the most authentic expressions from the innermost being; attitudes dominate behaviors, and behaviors respond to attitudes, so the importance of environmental behaviors is second to environmental attitude. Environmental perception is influenced by external conditions.
Environmental awareness in the Miyun improved between 2006–2015. This change is evident in terms of both environmental behavior and environmental perception. However, there was no significant improvement of environmental attitude. Villagers’ deeper environmental perceptions did not translate into a positive attitude toward environmental management. Respondents do recognize environmental degradation and acknowledge the need to take action to solve or at least mitigate it. However, eventually, when it comes to willingness to pay for environmental management measures, they appear to show skepticism for the government to some extent. Although all of the villages showed an improvement in terms of environmental awareness, the improvement in villages with a better environmental management (i.e., the eco-villages) was more considerable than that detected in villages with a comparatively worse environmental management (i.e., the agri-villages). There is considerable room for improvement in terms of awareness. To improve it, local government should strengthen environmental infrastructures, and increase the disclosure of environmental information to inform people about environmental conditions and relevant policies. In order to ensure public support and participation in environmental protection, local authorities should also focus on strengthening their credibility in the eyes of local communities.