HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 1987, Huo Daishan documented the Huai river’s pollution. Armed with a cheap camera, pen and notebook, he began a one-man campaign to publicize the issue, taking it up as a full-time mission in 1998.
  • “Guardians of the Huai River” was organized in 2000. The following year, he staged his first exhibit along a street in his village by stringing together on a clothesline photographs of the river.
  • Through 15,000 images, Huo has laboriously documented Huai River’s pollution in over twenty cities and counties across Henan.
    He has mounted seventy exhibitions in cities, universities, and villages; written letters exposing the illegal activities of local officials and factory owners; and championed the cause of the river and its people in media and conferences.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his selfless and unrelenting efforts, despite formidable odds, to save China’s great river Huai and the numerous communities who draw life from it”.

 CITATION

Water pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the government and people of China. Massive industrialization has left seventy percent of China’s rivers gravely contaminated, threatening the health and livelihood of hundreds of millions of its people.

A stark example is Huai River, China’s third largest, that runs a thousand kilometers through four provinces and forms a major agricultural basin which is home to over 150 million people. Industries have dumped millions of tons of waste and sewage into Huai, transforming it into China’s most polluted river. Pollution’s threat to health is dramatized in the emergence of so-called “cancer villages” — poor riverine communities where there is an extraordinarily high incidence of tumors and cancers associated with contaminated water.

The Huai river is dying, and so are people living along its most toxic stretches. In 1994, China’s government responded to this problem with a multi-billion, basin-wide pollution control project. The project’s impact, however, proved inadequate.

One of the most seriously threatened areas along the Huai river is Henan province, and in Henan the county of Shenqiu has the largest cluster of “cancer villages” in China.

In 1987, Huo Daishan, a newspaper photographer from Shenqiu, was so shocked by the river’s blackened water, poisonous fumes, and dead fish that he started to document the river’s pollution. Armed with a cheap camera, pen and notebook, he began a one-man campaign to publicize the issue, taking it up as a full-time mission in 1998, and organizing a group called “Guardians of the Huai River” in 2000. The following year, he staged his first exhibit by stringing together on a clothesline photographs of the river along a street in his village, with the help of his wife and two sons. Operating out of his family’s small apartment in Shenqiu, Huo worked with very meager resources and little outside assistance. But he threw himself into his mission with such determination, he eventually succeeded in calling wide public attention to the tragedy of Huai.

With over fifteen thousand images, Huo has laboriously documented the river’s pollution in over twenty cities and counties across Henan. He has mounted seventy exhibitions in cities, universities, and villages; written letters exposing the illegal activities of local officials and factory owners; and championed the cause of the river and its people in media and conferences. His images of waters wreathed with noxious foam and village children wearing gas masks stirred wide public debate. Still, Huo went beyond taking pictures: he engaged in research and documentation; organized site visits for students and concerned groups; and recruited and trained hundreds of volunteer “guardians” who now work in teams to regularly monitor the river and conduct water-testing along the river communities.

Harassed by local officials and factory owners, he did not relent in his campaign. By dint of his sincerity and persistence, Huo has since succeeded in building cooperative relations with local authorities and industries. A major polluter in the area, and one of China’s biggest MSG manufacturers, is now working collaboratively with Huo in implementing pollution-control measures. Moving forward, Huo has taken other steps to address the urgent needs of affected villagers: linking up with government and private institutions, he has installed deepwater wells and low-cost water filtration systems in local communities; hundreds of cancer patients have also been provided much-needed medicines.

Efforts by government and citizens have resulted in some improvement in the condition of the Huai. But the problem of pollution remains critical. When Huo started out in his crusade, he dreamed, he said, of “returning the river to its pristine condition when I was still a child.” In his lifetime, this may remain only a dream. But in passionately pursuing this dream, fifty-six-year-old Huo has already shown what great things can be done by a single, ordinary citizen in protecting a river and its people.

In electing Huo Daishan to receive the 2010 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his selfless and unrelenting efforts, despite formidable odds, to save China’s great river Huai and the numerous communities who draw life from it.

 RESPONSE

President Benigno S. Aquino III, Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and friends.

I feel greatly honored to be elected as one of those to receive the 2010 Ramon Magsaysay Award. First of all, I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. Thank you for gracing me with great attention. It is because of your great work that I stand on this stage today.

From the bottom of my heart, I feel that this award belongs to all the volunteers of the Huai River Guardians and the villagers living along the Huai. Because at each time that I was in peril, it was they who stood firmly with me and devoted all they had to keep our endeavors alive. It was they who offered me their homes in the villages to protect me and keep me safe. I have no doubt that without these people, I could not have held on up to this day, and be able to talk to you on this great occasion.

I also want to thank my wife Dong Sulin and my children. For more than ten years, they have shared my pressures and responsibilities. Even though they are not financially compensated for their efforts for being mere volunteers, my two sons — Min Hao and Min Jie have had no reluctance to become the second generation of Huai River’s guardians.

Last but not least, I cannot forget the support I got from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection throughout the years. I thank them for treating me as a pair of eyes to watch over Huai River. They allowed me to directly communicate with them. I reported to them so many times while standing right on the spot where the Huai River’s pollution was breaking out.

I come from a county in Henan Province which is located along the banks of the Huai River. I was raised on the waters of the Huai. I love my hometown so deeply. Today, I accept this award as an honor, and as a responsibility. I am going to spend the prize money to build more water purifying systems in the villages along the Huai. I hope by doing so, the farmers in these villages, who are the innocent victims of pollution, will understand our Magsaysay Award from a much closer distance, and feel its impact in their own lives.