Beijing Water

People power for China’s rivers

China’s environment minister enlists people power to help clean up the country’s “black and stinky” waterways.

“Hei chou he,” a new campaign launched by the Chinese government to curb river pollution in China literally translates to “black and stinky rivers.”

The statistics are daunting. Almost 80 percent of China’s 300 cities don’t treat their sewage and nearly half of the country’s rivers are so inundated by pollution they’re unfit for human contact, reports Rob Schmitz for Marketplace. [See: China’s new weapon against water pollution: its people]

Enter a new government campaign that harnesses the country’s enormous population to tackle the enormity of its river crisis, simply by encouraging citizens to report the river problems they observe directly to authorities via a “Black and Stinky Rivers” social media app.

In an interview with Schmitz, renowned Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun described the effort as “unprecedented” and one of the first times the government has “really, actually” engaged with people. Ma credits the country’s relatively new and popular minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, as the breakthrough in “this new approach to engage citizens.”

Ma has also been instrumental in helping to connect citizens to Beijing’s anti-pollution momentum with the creation of the Blue Map social media app. The app permits access to hourly air and water emissions data from several thousands factories across the country; data that has never been made available to the public before. Speaking to Schmitz, Ma continues:

Local officials with access to the data often interfered with enforcement because they were tied to the polluting factories.

“So our thinking is that if this data can be shared with the public, then the public who has gotten informed can support the local agencies and can overcome this interference,” he says.

The notion that people power is their greatest asset in transforming the country’s skies and waterways is a leap for Communist Party leaders more used to the power of public protest in recent years, as China’s burgeoning “not in my backyard” environmental movement, enabled by social media, tests its growing might. But it is these citizen frontlines that are best placed to hold polluters to account.

Patricia Adams, the executive director of longtime China monitor Probe International, in her address to an international symposium on China’s water crisis in 2014, described the people of China as key to its water revival. Empower the people to protect their environment — through the right to know, legal and political tools, and the security to exercise their rights — and China, and the rest of the world as a result, will thrive, said Adams. Doing so will permit citizens, she said, to hold those who would destroy their environment to account and reward those whose innovations are sustainable in an economy governed by the rule of law. [See: Saving China’s Environment: Give Power to the People]

Related Reading

Environmental NGOs in China: Encouraging action and addressing public grievances

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