So far, there is no clear picture at national level regarding the severity, spatial distribution, trend and driving forces of phosphorus (P) release from agriculture to surface waters in China, which presents a major obstacle for surface water quality management and relevant policy-making. By applying a proposed Activity-Unit-Balance (AUB) methodology, this paper retrospects and prospects phosphorus release from agricultural activities to surface waters from1978 to 2050 in China. Modelling results reveal that P load from agriculture has increased 3.4 times during 1978–2005 and will increase by 1.8 times during 2005–2050. Although major contribution factors are mineral fertiliser application (MFA) and livestock feeding activities (LFAs), LFAs will be the single largest source of increased total P load in the next decades. Most importantly, agricultural pollution in China is spatially overlapped with industrial and domestic pollution, and regions in the southeast to “Heihe-Tengchong” line have to be confronted with an austere challenge to control and manage industrial and domestic pollution as well as pollution from agriculture at present and in future.

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