Turning data into drinking water in China

15 December 2020

For many people in rural China, drinking a glass of water is often a roll of the dice. Agricultural runoff and chemical waste from factories have left about 50 per cent of the country’s shallow groundwater polluted, according to some estimates. Every year, tainted water makes millions of people ill around the world, a fact that Xiaoyuan “Charlene” Ren knows all too well.

Ren is the founder of MyH2O, a data platform that charts the quality of groundwater across rural China. The app lets residents know where to find clean water and connects communities with private companies and non-profit organizations that provide potable water solutions.

“Imagine two glasses of water, both looking the same, but one is clean and one could make you sick. How do you choose?” asks Ren, who was raised in Beijing but has family outside the Chinese capital. “This is the dilemma facing my grandparents. We are setting out to change that. Water should not be a luxury item.”

Since its launch in 2015, MyH2O has helped provide clean water to tens of thousands of villagers, an accomplishment that saw Ren recently named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She is among seven prize winners who will receive funding and mentorship to support their work. 

“The MyH2O network and platform that Xiaoyuan Ren has pioneered addresses the root causes of deteriorating water quality whilst safeguarding water resources in underprivileged communities. UNEP encourages such bottom-up approaches and through this award, we hope that MyH2O  can inspire many others,” said Joakim Harlin, the head of UNEP’s freshwater unit.

Ren became interested in environmental advocacy as a teen. At school in Beijing, she joined Roots and Shoots, the global youth programme founded by Jane Goodall. She went on to earn dual master’s degrees in environmental engineering and technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States of America.

Mapping the water quality

While researching rural water use in India, she became determined to help address what she calls a mounting water crisis in rural China. India had substantial information about rural sanitation, as well as a database covering water quality in all public wells. This data helps channel resources to where they are needed.

An early MyH2O survey of rural communities in China showed that 40 per cent of the residents were worried about their drinking water but had no ability to test it. Another 10 per cent thought their water was fine, but the tests showed it was unhealthy.

The MyH2O platform, which includes a mobile phone app, relies on a nationwide network of youth volunteers who are trained to test water quality and log their results into the interactive platform. The volunteers also conduct water usage surveys and evaluate the demand for clean water. This information is mapped to provide a picture of the state of water across rural China.

The MyH2O app is easy to use, giving residents up-to-date information about water quality as well as solutions to purify it. The platform also links communities with organizations and companies that specialize in cleaning tainted water sources.

Xiaoyuan Ren leads MyH2O, a data platform that tests and records the quality of groundwater across a thousand villages in rural China into an app so residents know where to find clean water. Photo: UNEP

Improving human and environmental health

Ren’s goal is to bring data-driven solutions to underprivileged communities while improving human and environmental health. (MyH2O covers 1,000 villages in 26 Chinese provinces.)

“What motivates me is galvanizing others to take action,” she said. “We work with students studying science, technology, engineering and medicine. They will go on to develop careers in these fields and create solutions to some of the environmental problems they have seen while working with us.”

The work is sometimes daunting, said Ren. COVID-19 has forced data-gathering teams to scale back their efforts and delayed public work programmes that were to bring clean water to rural communities. 

Then there is the constant battle to keep up with a rising tide of pollution.

“Sometimes it feels like we are only scratching the surface with the work we do,” said Ren.

Still, with the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration on the horizon in 2021, Ren is optimistic about the future. To combat the threats facing the planet, she said countries must tailor solutions to the needs of people.

“If we want to solve environmental issues, we have to start at the village level. We aim to serve our communities and bring change for future generations, helping them understand the big environmental challenges we face, but also that solutions are within the reach of each of us.” 

Article retrieved from the Young Champions of the Earth

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth honour individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have had a transformative impact on the environment.

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is the United Nations Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Xiaoyuan Ren is one of seven winners announced in December 2020, on the cusp of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

By showcasing news of the significant work being done on the environmental frontlines these awards aim to inspire and motivate more people to act for nature. Both awards are part of UNEP’s #ForNature campaign to rally momentum for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming in May 2021, and catalyze climate action all the way to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.  

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