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Environment

Cleaning up China's dirtiest region

Gansu province in central China is poor, parched and incredibly polluted. But after 29-year-old Zhao Zhong survived a serious climbing accident, he decided to dedicate himself to cleaning up the environment in Gansu.

Gansuprovince is home to steel factories, coal mines and petrochemical plants. The Guardian newspaper recently described Gansu as perhaps "the most unloved, environmentally abused corner of China." But 29-year-old Zhao Zhong is doing everything he can to change that.

After finishing his engineering degree, Zhao took a job at a nuclear facility in Gansu. He always loved the great outdoors and the pollution in Gansu bothered him, so he founded Gansu’s first environment group in his spare time, calling it Green Camel Bell. He visited schools to talk about recycling and raise awareness about the damage being caused to the local environment.

Then something happened that changed his life.

The turning point

In 2007, Zhao went climbing with a friend in the snowy mountains of Tibet. On the last day of their trip, and at high altitude, the snow became very heavy. "I didn't see there was a gap, because there was snow on the surface," remembers Zhao.

Although he was roped to his friend, he still fell the equivalent of three stories into a deep crevice. Unable to lift him out, Zhao's friend left to find help for the rescue. "Outside, it got dark and it was very silent. You feel cold, you feel hungry - and you feel like nobody, nothing alive is around you," he recalls. "It was a very difficult time in my life."

As Zhao shivered in the darkness, he thought that if he fell asleep, he would freeze to death. "I thought about a lot of things for my life, for my career, and for my work," he says. "The only thing that is important is how many things you leave for the world."

Zhao carved his name in the ice. He says he just wanted to leave something in the world.

After 33 hours trapped in the crevice, Zhao was rescued.

Mount Everest

The mountains of Tibet were live changing for Zhao Zhong

The forgotten place

Soon after the accident, Zhao quit his job at the nuclear facility and threw himself, full-time, into environmental protection. He started new, more ambitious programs, including one to preserve grasslands in Tibet. And he made it his mission to travel up and down Gansu’s polluted rivers with other volunteers, compiling data on the run-off from the heaviest polluters.

Chinahas become the world's biggest polluter and carbon dioxide emitter, and is not an easy place to be an environmentalist. Gansu is dirty even by Chinese standards. It has the disadvantage of being remote. When it comes to concern among the politicians and the population, out of sight and out of mind.

Little notice is taken when a slaughterhouse drains blood and waste directly into a branch of the Yellow River, when farmers throw all their trash in the river or when heavy industry dumps tons of untreated chemicals here.

But Zhao noticed. "You can go to Beijing, Shanghai, and the big cities, but in those areas the environment is not so bad and a lot of very good, well-trained people are doing projects. But here in Gansu very, very few people are doing this work," he says.

Facing opposition

Zhao Zhong regularly heads out of Gansu’s capital city, Lanzhou, on field trips. He is slightly scruffy, and often sleep deprived. His t-shirt has a drawing of a bear and reads: no hurt, no kill. He passes smoke stacks and petrochemical plants, farms and ancient tractors. Whenever possible, he speaks to factory owners face to face.

"They asked us, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ It’s hard to get information. They all know they're doing some bad things and they don’t want others to know the truth," he says.

Clouds of pollution from a factory in Baotou, in central China.

Clouds of pollution from a factory in Baotou, in central China.

Zhao’s environmental group uploads its data to the China Water Pollution Map, run by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. It also alerts villagers who are drinking unsafe river water. One foreign company has made upgrades to its waste water treatment system, but Zhao says it’s an uphill battle.

Since China’s economic boom, growth has trumped all other concerns.

Zhao stops at a Green Camel Bell project, where farmers are helped to grow a new kind of sunflower that will use less water than traditional crops, and help protect the eroding soil. Visiting a water purification center on the Yellow River, Zhao is told by a man refusing to identify himself that "the leader" - that is, the manager or owner - is not there. This is something Zhao hears a lot.

Still, changes are afoot. Zhao says the Chinese are taking stock of the huge environmental price they have paid for their rapid growth. China is becoming wealthier by the day, and this affluence is also allowing the Chinese to start thinking about their environment, he says.

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