Fearing the body might be eaten by fish, they tossed rice balls into the river hoping the fish would feed on the rice instead of the poet’s body. To memorialize Yuan Qu’s death, people set May 5 in the lunar calendar to be the Dragon Boat Festival, one of China’s most important celebrations.
This story took place in my hometown of Hunan. When I first heard it, I was incredibly touched, not only by Qu’s spirit, but by everything that came to play: the respect for his life even after his death, the harmony between humans and nature, and the river, that was once swimmable, fishable, and drinkable.
You may not know where Hunan is, but if you are using an iPhone, there is a 50 percent chance that your phone screen was manufactured in Hunan by a local company called Lansi Technology. This is a perfect example of globalization — you are connected to a region that you might know nothing about through your bedding, office supplies, and personal items.
As a member of Waterkeeper Alliance, Xiang River Waterkeeper shares a global vision of protecting our waters. Water blurs the boundaries of countries and regions and everywhere in the world, humans share the same challenge of environmental protection.
Facing increasingly severe water pollution, Xiang River Waterkeeper started a program in 2011 called “River Watcher,” hoping to get locals engaged with protecting their local waters. We promoted the program through newspapers and internet campaigns and signed up 60 people to be our first group of volunteers.
Water quality sampling at Ninxian.
River Watcher volunteers routinely monitor discharge points along the river and collect and test water samples. If excessive pollutants are detected, they promptly turn the case into their municipal environmental protection agencies and publish their observations on social media. The program had a successful start, submitting over 20 cases to local agencies its first year.
Xiang River Waterkeeper also holds events in the community to promote river knowledge and introduce as many people as possible to the wonders of nature. By participating in these events and getting to know their river, people realize the importance of protecting the environment and join our network of water advocates. The Xiang River Waterkeeper volunteer community has greatly expanded since starting these programs and we have become increasingly effective in our efforts.
A Xiang River Waterkeeper volunteer teaching her students about river patrol
We joined Waterkeeper Alliance in 2014, which connected us to like-minded organizations all over the world dedicated to water protection. That same year, we expanded our model to three other river branches in Hunan, building up an even larger network of 150 volunteers.
While you are reading this, more than 500 River Watchers are safeguarding our rivers in 62 counties and cities in Hunan. In 2016, they identified and reported 151 instances of pollution, solved 98 cases, and have published 2500 monitoring tweets (on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter).
In April 2017, we established the River Watcher Center with support from Alibaba Trust with the hope of finding one million people to protect our rivers. We have found that where there is a river, there are people who care and will contribute their time to better our environment.
From Xiang to Yangtze, from Hunan to the whole of China, we have made incredible progress over the past five years. We hope to partner with all Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world to set up and support local volunteer networks to protect our rivers, in the hopes that every river can return to being swimmable, fishable, and drinkable.