How to engage the public in river protection?

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In 2007, Liu Sheng co-founded Green Hunan, the first environmental NGO in Hunan Province that focuses on the protection of the Xiang River. The organization trains and supports local volunteers to fight river pollution in the region and has built a strong monitoring network.


In 2017, Green Hunan received funding from Alibaba Foundation to implement digital technologies in its operations. After countless failures and setbacks, in 2019 Liu and his team successfully launched River Patrol, a mini-program on the Chinese social media platform WeChat which enables the public to participate in river patrols and currently has over 1.8 million registered users.


Before founding Green Hunan, Liu was already an active environmental activist. He set up the first environmental protection club in his university, calling for more college students to pay attention to environmental issues. 


A serious river pollution incident in 2006 made Liu determined to dedicate himself to river protection. Due to a construction project near the Xiang River, heavy metal cadmium, which had piled up on the riverbed for years, leaked. 


This led to severe water pollution, causing several cities along the river to experience water shortages. Afterward, Liu founded Green Hunan to solve the environmental issues in his region.


Believing in the power of local engagement, Liu and his team established a comprehensive training program for local volunteers and river captains (the Chinese government has a river management system where each river has a river captain who’s in charge of management and monitoring).


“To protect rivers, relying on a few people within an organization is far from enough. To maximize results with limited resources, we need organizations to provide tools and training to empower local people to solve local environmental problems,” Liu said.


As the network of volunteers and river captains expanded across Hunan, the disadvantages of manual management arose. By 2016, Green Hunan had around 1,000 volunteers in its network, which required considerable effort and human resources from the organization to manage and coordinate. 


At the same time, Green Hunan also won funding from Alibaba Foundation. According to their agreement, the organization would receive 2 million yuan ($290,000) of annual funding for five years with the target of expanding the number of registered river watchers to one million.


With the push and pull factors, Liu realized it was time for Green Hunan to undertake its digital transformation and explore the power of digital technologies.


Following years of failures, setbacks, and organizational restructures, Liu and his team designed three different mini-programs, focusing respectively on river monitoring, riverbank cleaning, and river-source protection, creating a network covering 317 cities in 31 provinces with over 1.8 million users.


Liu’s goal is to get everyone involved in environmental protection. In the next three years, he will continue to optimize Green Hunan’s digital products and aim to engage 10 million people to participate in river protection across China.