As MyH2O is initiating a new water testing campaign across China’s western regions, where minority groups reside – including Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and so on, we sat down with the group’s founder, Charlene Ren, to know more about this grass-root organisation, its aims, achievements and next steps.
China Water Risk (CWR): Charlene, you founded MyH2O in 2014. What was your motivation back then?
Charlene Ren (CR): The idea came from a MIT D-Lab class on Innovation in the Water and Sanitation sector. Through the class, I started exploring water pollution in China and realised that although it’s not as high-profile as air pollution, it is just as critical if not more. However, due to the low visibility, it often goes unnoticed.
China has long been troubled by water pollution, and drinking water safety in particular has deteriorated in recent years. Increasingly serious water pollution is closely related to the growing number of cancer cases in more than 247 villages in China1. The 2009 national survey has estimated that across the 4,000 water processing factories, there might be only less than 50% producing drinking water that can consistently reach the national health standard2.
“…the public still only has limited access to local water information & solutions.
More transparency around water is needed”
Although this percentage has risen over the years, we still found out through field research that around 40% of the surveyed rural population are worried about their drinking water and health effects but have almost no resources for testing or remediation other than saving money for bottled water. Another 10% think their water is fine yet the tests show otherwise. Overall, while the media has become more outspoken about water pollution, the public still only has limited access to local water information and solutions.
More transparency around water is needed.
CWR: MyH2O maps water quality. How does this work?
CR: With this understanding, a few international members from the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN) gathered around and created “MyH2O – Water Quality Mapping” to tackle these problems. Through developing a nationwide water testing network of well-trained youths and an interactive data and information visualisation platform, MyH2O gives the public easy access to water info and helps connect regions with water safety concerns to potential clean water solutions.
MyH2O is a nationwide water testing network of well-trained youths & an interactive platform where the data is uploaded
To build this water information crowd-sourcing network, MyH2O recruits college volunteers in the field of environmental science and engineering from all over China, who form teams and go to rural areas, sometimes their own hometowns, to conduct the water quality field tests, water usage surveys and clean water demand evaluations. Through building this network, MyH2O hopes to make more college students and rural residents aware of the local drinking water conditions, improve their understanding towards water usage, and at the same time, use the survey information to expand our water map coverage.
With this increasingly more populated map, we are now communicating with more clean water service providers to advise them on field sites where they should pilot their product or deliver their services. The ultimate goal of this is the delivery of water solutions and advice to the communities that most need them.
With one of the first professional online crowdsourcing networks on drinking water quality, MyH2O aims to prompt water risk awareness, increase information transparency and eventually motivate solutions through independent reports of water quality.
“… MyH2O aims to prompt water risk awareness, increase information transparency & motivate citizen solutions”
CWR: How many tests have been conducted so far? What has the feedback from testing been like?
CR: MyH2O’s testing network started its first round of recruitment with 10 teams members conducting drinking water fieldwork in 20 different villages in Hebei, China in Feb 2015. Team members of environmentally-trained students tested for indicators including pH, Total Dissolved Solids, Iron, Chromium, Ammonia nitrogen, Nitrates, COD, and E. coli and sometimes arsenic depending on the different geographic background of the region. The tests mostly used rapid qualitative testing kits.
As of fall 2016 investigations have been done in 800+ villages in 23 provinces
Since the first successful pilot of fieldwork, MyH2O has recruited college teams and organised nation-wide water-testing activities every 1-2 seasons. As of fall 2016, water investigations have been conducted in 800+ villages in 23 provinces. Participating teams have increased from 10 to over 80. As a result, over 2000 data points have been collected. Positive feedback from the local villagers was received.
CWR: The data MyH2O collects is available through an online platform open to the public, yes?
CR: The mapping platform, which collects data, comments, and photos about drinking water from our network as well as other public data sources, displays them through an illustrative and interactive format. The platform mobilises solution providers and concerned citizens within our networks to come together and collectively discuss and solve water-related issues.
This platform is currently still being tested internally and within our network of environmental scholars and clean water entities. Compared to many other crowd-sourced data, water quality data are relatively complex and may be easily misinterpreted by people who have not fully studied the nature of water. We are still strategising our methods of public data presentation and mapping illustration so that the crowd-sourced data can provide effective information without becoming misleading.
The online mapping platform is still being tested internally…
… so that the data can provide effective information without becoming misleading
We are also in the process of developing a mobile app to provide better and more convenient information. The main functions include instant searches for water quality information nearby, quick updates and comments on water information through the mobile end, receiving advice on drinking water safety concerns, and getting connected with potential clean water solutions.
An app is also being developed to provide more convenient info
CWR: You have mentioned clean water solutions. Can you give some more information on how this will work and some specific examples?
CR: After identifying regions of concern through the water mapping platform, MyH2O is also in the process of constructing a network of potential solution providers (clean water organisations or companies) that can actually serve these regions.
MyH2O is in the process of constructing a network of potential solution providers
Meanwhile, we have also been consistently working with a number of water filtration suppliers to implement solutions
With clean water demand identified by the fieldwork teams, MyH2O would work with the teams directly to consider potential solutions for the target regions, and then attempt to connect these regions in need of improvement to clean water entities, especially those in our network that have already been working with our teams to support rigorous water quality surveys, demand evaluation and delivery of clean water facilities in regions of interest.
For example, we have been consistently working with a number of water filtration suppliers and clean water foundations. MyH2O’s market and water quality data supported water start-ups including Veraqua in the development of water purification and testing products so that they become tailored to the need of Chinese customers.
Data and reports from MyH2O fieldwork teams have also assisted Siyuan Water in delivering over 13 clean water filters to 4 different elementary schools in the rural regions of Baoshan, Yunnan. In the past round of water quality testing, our teams evaluated the clean water demands (based on evaluation criteria provided by Siyuan Water) of around 100 elementary schools across China, most of which are still directly drinking from groundwater supply sources. We are analysing their findings to determine potential clean water solutions connections that can be made in the spring cycle of fieldwork.
CWR: What is next for MyH2O?
CR: As our teams explore more of the rural regions of China, we have discovered more gaps between solution providers and the local communities. Communities in demand of clean water may not get access to the most appropriate solutions, while organisations hoping to provide clean water facilities are constantly searching for sites to pilot their products and evaluate their long-term impacts.
To more effectively bridge this gap, MyH2O’s next step is to build upon our existing network of teams and scientifically trained students. We will also select the most dedicated professionals among the network to carry out more rigorous water investigations, solution promotion and delivery, as well as long-term effect evaluation. With this professional network, we are hoping to follow through from problem discovery to problem solution.
Next, MyH2O will explore the minority regions of China and their water culture & water safety status
For the next round of water quality testing, MyH2O is partnering with National Geographic Air and Water Conversation Fund to explore the minority regions of China and their water culture and water safety status. This includes western and southern regions of China, such as Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and so on. In many of these cultures, water is considered holy and the locals have high respect for their ancient wells. Yet, water contamination from agricultural runoff and household waste disposal still happens. This intersection between modern science and traditional culture is the key theme we are exploring in this cycle to better understand how to better empower these minority population to take best care of their drinking water systems.
Fieldwork team recruitment are happening towards the end of March, and we welcome any local student teams, organisations, experts and so on to join our efforts. Follow our WeChat account (search for MyH2O or scan the QR code below) and newsletter for the latest updates.
In addition to field team recruitment, MyH2O is always looking for new members to join our management team. Please apply here.
1 Avraham Ebenstein. 2012. THE CONSEQUENCES OF INDUSTRIALIZATION: EVIDENCE FROM WATER POLLUTION AND DIGESTIVE CANCERS IN CHINA. The Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2012, 94(1): 186–201
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