River Warrior

By Nathan Senge

A conversation with Hao Xin, China’s Qiantang River Waterkeeper.

Qiantang_water testing (1)

Hao Xin demonstrates water-quality testing to student volunteers at YinZhou Middle School. Photo by JianLie Zheng (YinZhou Daily News)

Recently I met with China’s Qiantang River Waterkeeper Hao Xin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston to discuss his work restoring and protecting Zhejiang Province’s environment and its principal river, the Qiantang. Hao Xin is also the vice-president and executive director of Qiantang River Waterkeeper’s parent organization, Green Zhejiang, an NGO that has become one of the most influential water-advocacy groups in China.

If it were a country, China’s Zhejiang Province, home to 55 million people, would rank 24th on the world’s population list. The metropolitan area of its largest city, Hangzhou, alone houses 21 million people. Prior to Hao Xin’s involvement, it suffered from some of the worst water pollution in the country.

Hao Xin’s journey as an environmental activist began 17 years ago when he was a first-year environmental-science undergraduate at Zhejiang University. He was 18 years old, and had the idea to rally a few fellow students to bicycle with him around the province for a month to promote environmental awareness and assess the level of water-pollution in the region. They called their 36-day, 2,000-plus-kilometers ride “Millennium Environmental Protection Cycling” and adopted the motto “I dream; I do.” They found many places where pollution had reached staggering levels. Hao recalls many rivers “with piles of garbage visibly floating in black, foul-smelling water.” He was shocked, and, joined by one of his university instructors, Professor Junhua Ruan, and encouraged by people he had met on his journey, he set out to establish an environmental organization immediately upon his return to university.

Connecting to a growing network of civilian and professional allies, the organization was established in 2002, and grew steadily thereafter. It was first registered as a municipal-level civil-society group, the Hangzhou Eco-Culture Association. In 2013 it received provincial-level status as Green Zhejiang (GZJ). Professor Ruan, who received the seventh National Earth Award in 2003, is currently the president of what has become the largest environmental NGO in the province.

Over the past decade, Green Zhejiang has set up an impressive reach of programs, including ones for environmental monitoring and promotion, ecological community-development, nature education, and environmental and climate-change research, and it has been honored with a wide array of environmental accolades and awards. That’s a lot of success, but when Hao and his colleagues first became involved in water advocacy as university undergraduates, they faced a daunting lack of funding. They were, however, far from short of ideas, and they realized that their greatest challenge would be to achieve deep, long-term systemic change in the region’s environmental practices. Hao Xin remembered those early days and contrasted them to the present.

Hao Xin: “We knew that, if we could not clean the river and make villages more beautiful, all of our efforts would be wasted.

“Today Green Zhejiang is in a state of tremendous growth as an organization. Our network is extensive in the social sector, and we have pushed successfully forward on such key issues as the sorting of waste. The changes we have made already have fused one voice out of the more than 50 million people in Zhejiang Province.”

Like many provinces in China, Zhejiang has seen tremendous economic growth in recent years, and this has helped spread awareness of the need for ecological restoration.

H. X.: “It is interesting to note the relationship between one’s income and the degree of environmental pollution. The more income you have, the more stuff you have, and the more you tend to waste. But then a point is reached where the relationship inverts. That is, as income rises past a certain point, one has enough income to take measures to lower one’s environmental impact.

“Moreover, expectations for environmental protection also have increased. Twenty years ago, people literally would ask, ‘What does it mean to protect the environment?’ Now it’s a topic they discuss over dinner.

“I’ll tell you a funny story. Four years ago, there was a businessman in Zhejiang Province, a private entrepreneur and a member of Green Zhejiang, who went back to his hometown and saw garbage everywhere cluttering the river. So he offered 200,000 renminbi to the head of the Environmental Protection Department to go and take a swim in the river. The man politely declined. People are really starting to care about this issue.”

Nathan Senge: “What would you say to the people in the environmental movement in the United States, especially given that you conducted your graduate studies in the U.S. at Clark University?”

H.X.: “Big issues must be made local. A global concern like climate change must become visible on a human scale, in one’s ‘own backyard,’ where it can be seen, smelled and felt.”

This is why he and his group have taken advantage of the extensive training he received at Clark in geographic information systems (GIS), and created the Live Water Systems map for the Qiantang River, which was based on the nationwide China Water Pollution Map. It can be accessed on any smart phone with the corresponding mobile application, providing fast real-time updates on sources of water pollution throughout Zhejiang Province.

H.X.: “The idea came to us originally 12 years ago, when I first met Mr. Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).  The goal was to make a map of China’s water pollution, and I was put in charge of its technical development.

“Overnight it caught attention all around the world—Mr. Ma Jun was put on the cover of Time. It was then I realized people were extremely concerned about the geographical location of these ‘pollution spots.’ If people knew they were in their backyard, they took to caring about them. They were scared of what was close by—they cared less about what was far away. The map helped them see that these issues are indeed very close by—it renders something lofty and abstract like ‘climate change’ local and visceral.

“Initially, this map was a one-way thing. It reflected the latest government-fed information, and we published it. But then we realized this would be a much more powerful tool if it became a platform by which everyone could report on nearby instances of pollution themselves. So when I studied GIS at Clark, I learned about the power of open-source geographic information, about updating this map together, as a community, in real time. This technology was successfully piloted in 2010 in Haiti in the midst of the great earthquake. Volunteers poured into Haiti and needed to know where people needed the most help. In response, a GIS-based system called ‘Ushahidi’ was created and applied.”

Hao adopted its design in making the Qiantang River map interactive, allowing citizens to connect to the Environmental Protection Department, which in turn uses the map to find pollution spots and attend to them. The unpredictability of climate change makes such online maps particularly valuable.

H.X.: “This kind of dispersed grassroots environmentalist activity is essential in addressing our modern climatic situation, for indeed core issues like river pollution can crop up anywhere, in one of many forms. One cannot underestimate the power of the citizenry. The power inherent in all of us functioning as live and local climate reporters engaged in a collective endeavor of protecting and cleaning the environment we live in is everything. There is capital power in citizens acting on behalf of their local issues. That is how change mounts on a global scale. It does not come from the top. People on the ground need technological platforms by which they can do this. And that is what we provide.”

Hao believes that there is a critical need in the United States for a platform like this.

H.X.: “The new head of the EPA is a climate-change denier, so there must be grassroots activity, and it must be dispersed throughout the country to take advantage of all these people working diligently on their own local issue. They must have a way to communicate with one another, and coordinate their efforts.”

N.S.: “Are there any qualities in yourself that you have noticed have changed throughout the course of your journey?”

H.X.: “Seventeen years ago, when I organized the bike ride, it was simply because I loved cycling. But in the 17 years since then, I have realized that I am not just living for myself. I work with a group of people with a unified vision, to make deep change possible for the world. I feel self-actualized through this work. And consciously, or unconsciously, I have become a leader for these people. When you become a leader, you take on the responsibility of helping more and more people. You are not persuading them, but softly leading them, helping them change naturally in the way they wish to change already. For instance, lots of my friends used to be environmental polluters, but I got to know them through reporting them to the Environmental Protection Department, and we have since become partners in supporting environmental protection collectively.”

This is a common theme in Hao’s journey—transforming polluters into supporters, a process that is facilitated in China when polluters are allowed to shut down their operations without financial penalty. In fact, Hao often works to ensure that they receive government subsidies when they make that choice.

H. X.: “I’ll tell you another story. Three years ago, I went to a small town near Hangzhou where there was a rubber factory. The village was one of those typical villages where there has been a lot of rapid economic development after the reform and opening up, by which I mean the Chinese movement of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ that was initiated in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Basically, after this point, many farmers did not cultivate their land anymore and now worked in small businesses. These small factories brought heavy pollution to the village, and the rubber factory was a typical case. When you got close to the village, you could smell its pungent odor. So I reported the operator of the factory to the Environmental Protection Department.

“And I don’t know how, but somehow he knew it was me who had done it. So he tracked me down, and we talked, and we actually talked very well. We were both born in the eighties and are of a similar age, and we spoke civilly and had a very nice conversation.

“A year-and-a-half later, I supported him in achieving a ‘policy-related shut-down.’ In China, a policy-related shut-down is very different from an ‘environmental-related shut-down.’ The former involves financial compensation; the latter does not. After this happened, this man became one of our key partners, and he is now the vice-director of one of the local environmental-protection organizations we work with to promote rural ecological protection and environmental education around the region.

“I discover more and more that you must get to know the heart of your challenger. So that you may empathize, and you may merge.” W

Nathan Senge is a Systems Story Author for the Academy for Systems Change. He holds a summa cum laude B.A. in Chemistry from Dartmouth College, with a minor in Physics, and a M.A. in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

 

和钱塘江护水者忻皓的一次谈话

作者:内森·圣吉

Qiantang_water testing (1)

最近在美国马萨诸塞理工学院,内森·圣吉会见了钱塘护河者忻皓。两位谈了忻皓对浙江省的环境与母亲河钱塘江做的恢复与保护工作。忻皓任全中国最具有影响力的水资源保护推广组织之一并钱塘河护水者的上级组织绿色浙江的副主席及秘书长。

如果成为了一个独立国家的话,5.5千万人口的浙江省会在世界人口排名中排第24。其最大的城市杭州的总人口有2.1千万人。在忻皓的到来之前,那里的水质量属于全国最脏的之一。

忻皓对环保的热爱源于他17年前的自己,浙江大学环境科学系的一名大一学生。当时18岁的他招了一批同学骑自行车一个月到全省各地,边推广环保主义边检查许多地方的水污染。那36天,2000多公里的路程被他们称之为千年环保世纪行并提了一个口号,因为我想,所以我行动。在他们巡的很多地区,污染已经达到了令人惊愕的程度。忻皓仍能记得很多条河的恶劣状况:水又臭又黑的,垃圾一堆一堆的漂浮在水面上。他被他所看到的画面惊呆了,而在他的一位教授阮俊华的陪伴并路上遇到的许多人的鼓励下,他一回浙大就开始行动成立 一个环保组织。

绿色浙江成立于2002,而在不断生长的民众与专业伙伴网络的帮助下,该组织正在迅速发展。该组织当初是作为一个市级文明社会组织杭州生态文明会注册的。2013年,它升级到省级并转变成为绿色浙江,现在已经是浙江省最大的非政府组织了。现任主席为2013年第7届地球奖获得者阮教授。

过去十年来,绿色浙江开过繁多项目,其中涉及到环境监测与环保推动,生态社区发展,自然教育以及环境与气候变化研究。除此之外,该组织还获得过许多种环保荣誉与奖赏。虽然现在的绿色浙江算是非常成功,但当初正在浙江大学读本科的忻皓和他的合作伙伴们面临着令人却步的资金缺乏。尽管如此,他们不缺想法,而很快就意识到自己最大的挑战即长期实现当地环保管理作风的深刻,系统性改革。忻皓想起那时候的日子,并与现在做比较。

忻皓:我们知道,如果河流不能变得干净,如果村不能美化,那我们所有的努力都废了。

今日绿色浙江这个组织正在快速扩展。我们在社会领域中拥有庞大的网络,并且我们成功过推动垃圾分裂等关键环保问题。我们已把浙江省5千万多人口的需求融合在一起而引起了改变。

浙江省以及中国许多其他省份在这几年中经过的迅速经济发展提供了巨大的帮助来宣传生态恢复的需求。

忻皓:观察个人收入与环境污染成都的关系是特别有意思的。收入增长了,我们拥有的东西就多了起来而导致更多的浪费。不过迟早会达到两者之间的关系反过来的交叉点,就是说,收入达到了某一个特定的点之后,我们的收入是足够采取行动把自己对环境的影响减低。

并且,人们对环保的要求比以前高很多。二十年前,人们会问,保护环境到底意味着什么?而在我们现在的社会里,环保已变成一个普遍的话题。

给你讲一个有趣的故事。四年前在浙江省有一位私营企业家,恰好也是绿色浙江的会员。他有一次回家乡时看见了当地河流塞满垃圾的样子。他就亲自去找环保局局长,说只要人家到河里面游泳,他就会给他200,000元。局长谢绝了。人真的开始关注这个问题了。

内森·圣吉:你有没有话想对美国的环保主义者说?尤其考虑到你硕士是在美国克拉克大学读的。

忻皓:大问题必须本土化。像气候变化的全球环保问题得缩小到能够看得见的,闻得见的,感受到的规模。

忻皓和他的合作小伙伴们因此就充分利用在克拉克大学经过的地理信息系统(GIS)培训而创造了基于中国水污染地图的钱塘江水地图。该应用在任何智能手机上能够运行并快速提供浙江全省各地水污染状况的实时信息。

忻皓:“本想法其实早就已经存在了,12年前在我第一次遇见公众环境研究中心(IPE)主任马军先生的时候。我们当时的目的即制造一个中国水污染地图,而此项目的技术开发由我负责。

一夜之间,我们吸引到了全世界的主意。马先生出现在了时代周刊的封面上。就在那时候,我终于明白了人们极度关注这些污染点的地理位置。如果他们知道了污染的所在地位于他们自家后院,那他们会行动起来去处理。污染离得近才能让人们害怕;离得远的污染事件引起不了大家的关注。此地图帮助人民看见这些问题的具体位置实际上是很近的并使气候变化那么高大上,抽象的一个概念变得影响深刻,使得当地人们能够自己感受到问题的存在。

此地图最初这玩意是单向的,光反馈与宣布政府给的信息。但是后来我们意识到这个工具如果可以提供一个平台让大家都能够报道地方污染事件,那它可以起更强性能的作用。我在克拉克学习GIS的时候,我学到开源地理信息的力量。有了开源地理信息平台,一整个社区可以团结一致来实时更新地图。这种技术在2010年的时候已成功经过试用阶段。当时海底刚刚闹了地震,而来协助的志愿者们需要知道哪里的人们最需要帮助。因此基于GIS“Ushahidi”系统被创造并应用到志愿者活动中。“

因此忻皓就调整了钱塘江水地图的设计。现在,这个互动地图可以反映人民自己看见的问题而给环保局一个参考资源找到并处理污染点。气候变化的不可预测性使这种在线地图特别宝贵。

忻皓:这种分散的草根环保主义运动是处理现代气候变化的一个关键元素。河流污染等形态多样的核心问题真的是可以在任何地方出现的。公民的集体能力是不可低估的。我们每一个人都可以起实时地方记者的作用,共同努力保护自己的生活环境。民众为地方问题而行动起来是有资本力量的。全球规模的改革就是这么增长的。这个过程不能从上往下开始,而是由老百姓的主动来引起改变。而我们提供他们需要的技术平台。

他相信美国也急需这么一个平台。

忻皓:考虑到环保局的新部长已公开否认气候变化的存在,那美国需要全国分散的草根运动。地区规模的问题由当地的民众勤奋努力才能解决,而他们需要一个平台互相沟通及协调。这样才能够充分利用全国人民对环保工作的精神。

内森·圣吉:在你这么多年的环保路途中,你有没有意识到自己的性格特征有所改变?

忻皓:十七年前,我组织那次自行车行程更是因为我喜欢骑单车。但是在接下来这几年中,我意识到我的人生不光是为自己而活的。我身边的人和我的目的是统一的,为深刻改变世界而努力奋斗。我的工作使我感到自我实现。有意识的和无意识的,我自然偶然就成为了这些人的一个领导。当你成为领导时,你同时还担负起责任帮助越来越多的人。你并不是在劝说他们而是在委婉地带领他们自然改变自己的生活方式。这些变化必须是他们原有的心愿。比如,我很多朋友以前是污染者。在我把他们的信息报道给环保局的时候我们就认识了,而后来成了支持环保主义的合作伙伴。

忻皓这么多年的环保工作中总有一个统一的主题:把污染者转变成环保支持者。中国的政策允许污染者在直接停工的情况下避免经济惩罚。因此污染者不受太大的害;反而在忻皓的帮助下,厂主很多时候是可以因为停止污染而得到政府津贴的。这种方式使得很多污染者不会把环保主义者当做是敌人,反而会更愿意配合并成为合作伙伴。

忻皓:再跟你讲一个故事。三年前,我去了杭州附近的一个小镇。那里有一个橡胶厂。邓小平在1978年开展的中国特色社会主义改革开放运动引起了很多像这里一样的小镇子的快速经济发展。大部分农民已经不再耕种自己的土地了而更倾向于在各种小企业打工。这些小工厂带来了很严重环境污染,而这个橡胶厂是一个典型的案例。当你靠近村时,你可以闻到当地工厂辛辣的气味。因此我就向环保局检举了厂主。

我不知道他是怎么做到的,但是他通过某种渠道知道了是我报到了他。他亲自找到了我跟我谈论。我们其实谈的还挺顺利的。我们是一个年代的,八零后,年龄差不多。我们很客气的进行对话。

一年半之后,我支持他实现政策性停工。在中国,政策性与环境污染直接导致的停工之间差异巨大。只有前者才提供财物赔偿。此时发生之后,这个男人成了我们的一位中坚分子。他现在已在和我们常合作推动乡村生态保护及环保教育的一个地方环保组织任副主任。

我越来越发现,你必须试着去了解你挑战人的心。这样才可以同情他,合并而为共同目的奋斗。

内森·圣吉是系统变化研究院的一位系统故事作者。他拥有美国达特默思大学化学系的最优等学士本科学位,辅修物理,以及美国科罗拉多大学的新闻与传媒研究硕士学位。


About Waterkeeper

United as one powerful force, Waterkeeper Alliance fights for every community's right to drinkable, fishable, swimmable water. For more information please visit waterkeeper.org