The past few months have been busy for the budding environmental organization Green Stone. First, they stopped a plan to cut down 1,000 trees for a new subway line in the city of Nanjing, in Jiangsu Province. Next, they exposed a case of persistent, carcinogenic water pollution in one of Apple’s printed circuit board supply chains in the city of Kunshan (see Apple Report). The day before I arrived for a three day visit last month, one of Nanjing’s largest corporations called the Green Stone office, asking what they could do to improve their pollution record. Meanwhile, the Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau has asked Green Stone to be patient as they work to address the hundreds of pollution information disclosures requested by the group. “I think they are kind of afraid of us,” Green Stone’s Director Li Chunhua laughed.
The key to Green Stone’s recent success is not necessarily experience (their staff of three are all in their mid-twenties) but courage, charisma and recruiting. On a windy Sunday morning, we met staff and a group of 25 water monitoring volunteers by the edge of the Qinhuai River, the main river that bisects Nanjing City. Most of the volunteers were under thirty years of age, including a few new freshmen from nearby universities. Everyone’s spirits were high as we embarked on one of Green Stone’s bi-monthly “river walks,” to collect water quality samples using donated equipment, and to survey visitors to the river. Most were male retirees, folks who have been coming to the river in their leisure hour for decades. “The river stinks when it’s not flowing,” one of our survey participants observed. “It needs to flow. When it doesn’t move the pollution gets worse.”
The Qinhuai River flows into the much larger Yangtze, the source of Nanjing’s water supply. The Qinhuai used to be much more polluted, at least on the surface. In the past decade, Nanjing has spent hundreds of millions of US dollars to clean up the river. Upstream farms were shut down due to their use of agricultural chemicals, and wastewater infrastructure has been improved. During our river walk we observed garbage patrol boats with long-handled scoops picking up every visible scrap of trash.
But with water pollution, there is often more than what meets the eye. As we conducted our basic water quality tests, a volunteer from Nanjing University held a tiny bottle filled with pink water up to a laminated chart, to “read” the levels of dissolved oxygen in the sample. “It looks like a four,” he said, indicating a significantly depressed level of dissolved oxygen. Since there is little farming left on the Qinhuai, the problem is likely being caused by untreated urban sewage and runoff.