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 were 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 in China's major waterways.
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 in 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 waterways.
"I am grateful to my editor at China Environmental Science Press, who agreed to publish several thousand copies of my book 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 the 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, 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.
To ensure the reliability of the map, the figures come mostly from government agencies such as environmental protection agencies, water resources agencies, and land and resources agencies; the remaining come from mainstream media news reports. Ma once doubted public enthusiasm for a map of this kind, but his fears were quickly allayed after nearly 100 website visitors across the country wrote to offer geographical adjustments to rivers in their hometowns on the map in the first week of its operation.
"By presenting figures in a clear and comprehensive way, people can feel more direct and real about pollution around them," said Wang Yongchen, founding director of Beijing-based environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers. Her organization has helped to provide GPS positioning for the 20-odd offending factories and industrial parks in Beijing on Ma's map.
Ma said a major goal of his website is to encourage public participation in environmental affairs, which is in line with government strategies. In Ma's recent article titled A Path to Environmental Harmony, he wrote about the emergence of an "orderly participation" governance model, which was advocated in a proposal on building a harmonious society adopted by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2006. The same document calls for an "expansion at all levels of citizenry" of an orderly participation in politics, ensuring the people's legal management of national affairs, economy, culture and social affairs.
Ma said the legal foundation for public participation in environmental affairs was laid down by the 2003 Environmental Assessment Law stipulating "the state encourages organizations, experts and the public to participate in appropriate ways in environmental impact assessments." The State Environmental Protection Administration publicized Provisional Guidelines on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessments in February 2006, which put forth detailed requirements on information disclosure for project builders.
Won't back down
Ma said the inspiration for launching this website derives partly from his working experience as a consultant at Sinosphere Corp., which specializes in environmental management consultancy for multinationals operating in China. When a client said it would be very useful to have a search engine to screen Chinese companies with bad environmental records and remove them from the company's supply chain, Ma knew he had started to make a difference. But he also felt disturbed.
"This request stimulated me to reflect on why our workers exposed to a toxic working environment could be saved only when pressure travels across the Pacific Ocean from a multinational headquartered in the United States," he said.
The experience exposed a clearer line of action that he committed himself to exploring. First, economic incentives could be a useful tool to motivate companies to comply with environmental regulations. In the future, Ma plans to install a search engine on his website to screen companies as his old client suggested. Second, Chinese people should take the initiative to save their own environment.
However, Ma's surprising finding in his surveys for compiling his online map is that 33 multinational companies-up to mid-October-have been on Ma's list of companies with bad records. Five of the 33 companies are global Fortune 500 companies. "They have repeatedly stressed their commitment to environmental protection and good corporate citizenship to Chinese consumers. It is regrettable that they even failed to meet the environmental standards of the local government even if they have the capacity, capital and techniques to do so," said Ma. Several of these companies have tried to persuade Ma to pull their names off the list under the pressure from their parent company, but he has rejected all such requests. "I want them to respond in a positive way by doing practical work to solve their problems, rather than compete by lowering their environmental standards," he said.
Despite the many challenges, Ma is generally optimistic about environmental protection work in China. He said that the Chinese Government has paid increasing attention to environmental protection in the last two decades. This can be seen by the step-up of its national strategies from sustainable development, to scientific development and to harmony between nature and mankind. However, Ma pointed out that China's environment is still on a deteriorating curve due to its massive industrialization and urbanization. "Our efforts could rarely pay off 'old debts' while 'new debts' are added every day," said Ma, referring to irreversible damage already done in the past. For this gatekeeper there is no going back. "Under such circumstances, we need extra efforts in order to bounce back from the pit we have dug for ourselves."