Standing on the stage after receiving his award as China's "Green Person of the Year," Ma Jun's efforts to safeguard the environment flashed before his eyes. He remembered all the filthy rivers he had stood beside and the stream of complaints from local residents about how their lives were being destroyed by pollution. That moment reminded him that he was doing the right thing.
"People's complaints about pollution are based on their trust of me, and if I don't want to fail them I must devote myself fully to the work I am doing now. What I have achieved, however, is too trivial to pay back their expectations," said the modest 38-year-old, who has developed a habit of walking along the riverside of every city he visits. In his sparsely furnished 15-square meter rented office in a residential community in eastern Beijing, the most eye-catching item is a cupboard display of 12 photos of picturesque riverside views in western China, all taken by Ma on his survey trips.
Winning the prize was a total surprise for this eco-warrior, who got the news he had made the shortlist from a journalist. Ma had in fact nominated a friend working in an environmental NGO for the award. He said for those frontline environmental advocates who face daily physical threats in frequent head-on conflicts with local pro-growth parties, such an award is more a safety guarantee than an honor.
It's not only locally that Ma is being recognized for the work he does. Time magazine voted him one of the 100 most influential persons in the world in May 2006. The magazine's editorial said Ma's 1999 book China's Water Crisis was so alarming and revolutionary that it "may be for China what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was for the U.S." Besides receiving the Green award for his book, Ma's efforts to launch an online China Water Pollution Map in September 2006, was also recognized. The software he designed can locate polluting sources and provide relevant figures and information. "His innovation in publicizing environmental information has helped to nurture a new model for public participation in environmental protection," reads the citation by the awarding committee.
Triggering new thinking
Ma credited his groundbreaking book China's Water Crisis to his 10-year working experience as a researcher at the Beijing office of Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post. Between 1993 and 2002, Ma, a journalism major, was assigned to investigate problems related to water existing in China's major waters.
During one of Ma's field trips to the Yellow River, the second longest river in China, in the mid-1990s, he found to his surprise that the river, which went dry seasonally in its lower reaches for the first time in 1972, ran dry for stretches of up to 700 km for a record breaking 226 days in 1997, due to increased demands on the river for irrigation use.
Even more shocking for Ma was the comments of experts on such a phenomenon. "I heard some mainstream water experts rejoicing over this tragedy, saying that not only was the river no longer overflowing its banks, but not a single drop of the river water is wasted in the sea, " said Ma. He made the decision to write his book after finding out that the Yellow River irrigation model, regarded as a success, would be copied on other major rivers. Ma, who had little expertise on water resource management at the time, felt intuitively that something had gone wrong. "I felt that the river, like human beings, needs water as the blood to continue its life cycle," he said.
He began writing the book in 1998 and had it published at the end of 1999. It is a compilation of data and analysis on water shortages, water pollution and degradation of water quality in all of China's seven major waters.
"I am grateful to my editor at China Environmental Science Press, who agreed to publish my book in several thousands copies despite the predictable unpopularity," said Ma. The book's readership exceeded all expectations. Not only did it find popularity with environmental NGOs and water experts, but many ordinary Chinese bought copies. It was also published in English and distributed in the United States in February 2004.
Ma was also overjoyed to see his book help sway government's traditional approach to water resources management of trying to conquer and change nature. Making a speech in July 2006, Wang Shucheng, Minister of Water Resources, said that building a water-conservation society is essential to alleviate water shortages in China.
Water SOS online
Since May 2006, the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental NGO founded by Ma Jun, embarked on a formidable project of mapping out levels of water pollution in various parts of China and naming companies whose sewage discharges exceed statutory levels. The number of offending companies marked out in the online map had climbed from less than 2,600 at its launch to 3,012 in three months, due to day-to-day information updates.