Student Activists Are Mapping China’s Widening Water Pollution

Can citizen scientists use better data to prompt action from the government?

Even the official figures show China has a serious water pollution problem: in 2014, the government said 60% of of the country’s underground water is contaminated. But these statistics don’t tell the whole story. In many places, testing isn’t done regularly and there’s a big demand for local information, according to Charlene Ren, a Chinese clean water activist.


Ren has created the MyH2O’s Water Mapping Network which takes measurements from on-the-ground student teams and tags it to interactive maps. By recording water quality in thousands of wells and boreholes across China, she hopes to prompt action by water companies, foundations and, perhaps, by officialdom as well.

“This is a great way [for local people] to get a sense of what’s in their water and what they can do about it. We focus on these areas that are really far away and disconnected from a central systems where people are not really going in to help,” she says.

Ren hopes to emulate the success of air pollution campaigners who have spurred government action through citizen testing efforts. MyH2O works with teams of student environmentalists who use cheap color-change testing kits. The students then upload their results to the map–nitrate, magnesium, arsenic, ammonium, nitrogen, chromium, PH, and so on–along with photos and some commentary.

So far, 30 teams have submitted 2,000 sets of results, while another 50 teams have applied to take part in the program this summer. For example, one team worked in the remote and autonomous Xishuangbanna Dai prefecture, in Yunnan, in southern China.

Ren studied physics at Vassar College and is currently completing a master’s in environmental engineering & policy at MIT. She recently became a 2016 Echoing Green fellow, which comes with an unconditional grant of $80,000-$90,000. She plans to use the money to sign up more teams, build a stronger data platform, and tie up more partnerships with water nonprofits and companies.

“The water companies and foundations have been telling us ‘We want active results in these regions so we can figure out where to target solutions.’ We already have a lot of teams working on this. But we really want these results to be put to good use so these problems can get solved,” she says.


Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.