Interview: China’s Green Hunan Trains Citizen Scientists To Fight River Pollution

Katy Yan
Monday, December 3, 2012

Green Hunan, founded in 2007, is the only civil society organization focusing on basin-wide environmental issues in Hunan Province’s Xiang River watershed. Katy Yan asked them about their citizen-science projects to protect water resources in the watershed.

WRR: Describe your citizen science efforts. How does it work? How many people does it take?

GH: Our current “citizen science” projects include the volunteer Observation and Action Network of Xiang River Watershed, the Vote for the Top Ten Environmental Events in Hunan Province, and a Pollution Information Transparency Index.

For the Observation and Action Network, we established 63 on-site monitoring stations on six upper tributaries of the Xiang River and two heavy polluted areas in the Xiang River watershed for long-term monitoring. There have been more than 60 frequent volunteers (also called Stewards of the Xiang Rivers) involved in the Network, who are from 23 local cities and counties by the river. Their professional backgrounds include industrial workers, farmers, students, professors and public officials. These volunteers conduct basic tests of water quality on a regular basis at the monitoring stations, track pollutants, push for solutions to the pollution problems and record any environmental changes in the watershed.

Recently, one of our volunteers discovered that a local company had been secretly discharging pollution into the river during the night. As part of his investigation, he went to the discharge outlet late every night, making records, taking pictures, and sampling the pH of the polluted river. When the pollution was confirmed, he immediately reported it to the government and circulated the information on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), where it was immediately re-tweeted 4,000 times. The outcry from the public and local media directly led to enforcement actions by the environmental protection bureau, which shut down the polluting factory, followed by an unprecedented public apology from the company chairman.

It has been one and a half years since the beginning of our Observation and Action Network. We have accumulated 100 monitoring logs recorded by volunteers and more than 5,000 monitoring pictures. Our project not only encourages local governmental authorities to stop polluting activities, but also offers an abundance of data on the ecological and environmental changes in the Xiang River watershed.

Including the Stewards of the Xiang River, there have been more than 100 regular volunteers now working for Green Human on various projects. We expect more volunteers to join us, helping us carry out our work while pursuing their own ideals of “citizen science” at the same time.

WRR: What do you do with the results?

GH: First, the collected data is categorized and put on file in a database for follow-up research and investigation. This kind of data collection has long-term value.
Next, the data is analyzed and edited into the final research reports for publication. Copies of the reports are sent to relevant governmental authorities and companies. An example is our “Report of the Pollution Information Transparency Index of the 14 Cities and Autonomous Prefectures in Hunan Province.”
In addition, water quality monitoring data is also sent directly to the environmental protection bureau as evidence of pollution events. This has prompted enforcement actions to stop the polluting activity.

WRR: What successes have you had with your citizen science programs?

GH: Although there is still a long way to go to reach real success, below are some of our achievements:

  • We managed to establish a non-governmental volunteer network for water quality monitoring in the Xiang River watershed based on “citizen science.” Before that, the public was just a set of scattered individuals who may have had good ideas but lacked the means to act. Our network unified these individuals by providing a platform where they can learn basic but practical research methods. The network not only effectively limited environmental disasters in the Xiang River watershed, but also created a model for NGOs in other regions on how to control water pollution in a watershed. This builds the wider network, one comprised of ordinary citizens who can now prevent pollution on a larger scale and in an entire watershed.

  • Thanks to this monitoring and action network, we have been able to research the condition of the entire Xiang River Basin. After travelling for more than 8,000 kilometers, we produced the “Report of the Current Situation of the Ecological Environment in the Xiang River Watershed,” which details the situation from the perspective of the citizen scientists, which differs from the perspectives of members from government and academia.

  • Some of our projects have been reported on in both mainstream and new media platforms, which has enhanced public awareness of the pollution problems in the Xiang River watershed and widely advertised our volunteer activities. We believe there will be more “citizen scientists” joining us as a result of this.

WRR: What other kinds of citizen science programs do you know about with other Chinese groups?

GH: In recent years, many NGOs in China have initiated public science programs, including the China Pollution Map and Database developed by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, which promotes green industrial chains, and the Chongqing Liangjiang Voluntary Service Center’s program to prevent and control water pollution. Many of these NGOs are our partners as well as models for our work.