Gansu province in northwestern China is a land of snowcapped peaks, crumbling hills and Silk Road oases. It's a harsh, beautiful place and a fragile one. Water supplies are prone to overuse by industry and agriculture. Rings of hills trap noxious emissions over cities like provincial capital Lanzhou, which has some of the world's worst air pollution. And aggressive economic policies mean polluting factories aren't always held to account.
But one man is helping Gansu cultivate a respect for its natural gifts. Zhao Zhong, 27, who moved to the province to work for the Chinese Academy of Science in 2004, set up Green Camel Bell (GCB) the province's first environmental NGO with a few volunteers in 2004. Named for the bells used on traditional camel trains, GCB raises awareness about green issues, monitors polluters and advocates new policies.
Its volunteers scour the province for factories that dump waste and toxins into rivers, adding culprits to an independently run, national water-pollution map. Multi-nationals and their offshoots have taken note. After a brewery it part-owned in Tianshui ended up on the map, beer giant Carlsberg installed wastewater-treatment facilities. State-owned firms that are found polluting usually feign indifference, but at least they know they are being watched, a new and uncomfortable experience. "Companies that are causing pollution feel pressure from the water-pollution map," says Zhao. "They are forced to take immediate and more open measures to solve the problem." Everyone can drink to that.