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Chinese photographer helps save a river

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Huo Daishan, a newspaper photographer, did not want to give up on the river he loved. So he embarked on a crusade to save the heavily polluted river. The Philippine Daily Inquirer has the story.

One day, Chinese photojournalist Huo Daishan was shocked to see that the Huai no longer looked like the river of his childhood.

It was highly polluted, emitted toxic fumes, yielded dead fish, and killed people. It had become a river of death.

“I lived there,” Huo, 56, told the Inquirer. “I played there when I was a child. The water was clear and we could see fish. We could even drink the water.”

Huo is one of the seven 2010 Ramon Magsaysay (RM) Awardees who will receive honors on 31 Aug, the birth anniversary of the late President after whom the award is named.

He is being recognized for “his selfless and unrelenting efforts, despite formidable odds, to save China’s river Huai and the numerous communities who draw life from it.”

Huo is one of three Chinese RM awardees this year, and the 16th from the People’s Republic of China since the RM Awards began in 1958. The two others, both government bureaucrats, will not attend the awarding ceremony.


The RM Awards Foundation honors individuals and institutions that have shown “greatness of spirit in selfless service to the peoples of Asia.”

The award is given to “persons—regardless of race, nationality, creed or gender—who address issues of human development in Asia with courage and creativity, and in doing so have made contributions which have transformed their societies for the better.”

The great Huai River is known to have cradled ancient Chinese civilization.

By its banks lived great figures in Chinese history, among them Confucius, Mencius and Laozi. Legendary figures Fuxi, ancestor of all Chinese people, and Dayu, water control hero, were associated with it.

The powerful river gave life but it has also been known to take its toll, through floods, on communities thriving near it. A thousand kilometers long, it meanders through four provinces and forms a major agricultural basin where more than 150 million people live.

In recent years the Huai came close to dying because of pollution. Also dying were many people living in riverbank communities that became known as “cancer villages.”

Industries had long been unleashing millions of tons of waste into the Huai, turning it into China’s most polluted river.

But Huo, a newspaper photographer from Shenqui, did not want to give up on the river and the people that he loved.

He embarked on his crusade by showing the state of the Huai through thousands of his photographs. His efforts opened the floodgates of concern that led to a concerted action to save the river.

Full-time mission

In 1987, Huo started documenting the river’s dying. He was alone when he began.

“I had only a Minolta camera, a notebook and a pen,” he recalled.

Although the Chinese government had tried to address the Huai problem with a multi-billion rehabilitation project, its impact was not enough. Worse, a local government produced a fake report on the river’s state.

Huo resigned from his newspaper job and, in 1998, decided to make his river documentation a full-time, self-funded mission.

In 2000 he formed a group called “Guardians of the Huai River” and mounted his first photo exhibit that showed the true state of the river and the communities near it.

With the help of his wife and two sons, he hung photographs on clotheslines along a street in his village. He had little resources to go by, but he was so determined that he eventually drew the attention of the public to the dying river.

He was no longer alone.

Huo’s efforts over the years yielded more than 15,000 photographs taken in more than 20 cities and counties across Henan.

He has held more than 70 photo exhibits in cities, villages and schools. His photographs of children wearing masks to protect themselves from the Huai’s toxic fumes shocked many.

Research and training

Huo and his group produce not only still photographs but also video documentaries in DVD that can easily be shown to big numbers of people. (But a book of photographs and stories is something Huo would really like to do.)

Apart from producing photographs, Huo also did research and organized river visits for students and interested groups.

He trained hundreds of volunteer “guardians” who monitored the Huai and tested the water. One of his group’s shocking findings was the high incidence of cancer, particularly in the respiratory and digestive systems, in the riverbank communities.

Huo also discovered that the water used for agriculture and even the ground water for drinking had been contaminated by the pollutants in the Huai.

Initially, local officials and factory owners did not look kindly on Huo’s advocacy. At one point his website was hacked.

But he was undeterred and continued working hard until his relations with uncooperative groups improved. In fact, one major polluter of the river, a producer of MSG, now collaborates with him in putting pollution controls in place.

Huo has succeeded in involving government and private groups in his crusade to save the Huai. But the so-called cancer villages remain among his major concerns.

He worked to have deep water wells and low-cost filtration systems installed in the riverbank communities and for hundreds of cancer patients to receive medical aid.

Huo hopes to see the Huai restored to its original pristine state in his lifetime, the way it was when he was a child.


The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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