May 23, 2006
Betsy in China
We start off by looking for solutions, in the world and ourselves, based on our culture: educational background, family structures, and religious orientations. For example, I am a New England protestant, raised and educated in a system that values individualism and initiative, often to the exclusion of collective solutions. While working in China, I have found that sometimes this attribute is beneficial, and sometimes it blinds me.
When I began my advocacy in China I ran into something unfamiliar to me: the high degree of cooperation and collaboration that is possible among Chinese people from very different backgrounds and ethnicities. I saw what can happen even with scarce resources, when a group functions “one for all and all for one.” No one considered their visibility, or their budget, or their artwork more valuable than that of others. My initiative is good. However, perhaps, individualism has its pitfalls.
In China, my work has been to initiate projects which preserve water systems and teach people about biosystems, in the face of exceptionally rapid growth and over-reliance on engineering. In this, I have encountered people who, for all their lives, have been working to preserve basic ecosystems in the face of insurmountable obstacles. A few eagerly leapt to try new ideas, to develop scientific knowledge and study the means to implement solutions. They are evolving towards new forms of cooperation and inter-dependence in the midst of a culture with 2000 years of bureaucracy.
I see undeniable results from our advocacy: in a mere 10 years, leading universities have developed whole new departments. For example, Sichuan University now requires environmental education for every undergraduate. Chinese NGO's are now active and often large. The City of Chengdu has modeled many parks from my first project, the Living Water Garden. There is a high school in Beijing with a model study program on wetland remediation. Watershed protection and clean-up of rivers are becoming more common.
There are many stories to tell. The most hopeful one centers around CURA, the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association and the Model Village Project. The CURA was formed by people central to the Living Water Garden effort. After its completion, the leader, Tian Jun, a Chengdu native with little education, went on to be in charge of media and publicity for the Fu Nan River restoration project, that now incorporates the Living Water Garden as one of its parts. CURA’s intention is to restore and preserve the rivers in the watershed of Chengdu. Their mission is to find sites and work with the villagers to create the proper waste streams, restore rivers, protect the water shed and improve the standard of living in the villages by producing organic food. They are creating an education center to educate all the villages involved. It is challenging, but after two years they found a village that was willing to cooperate—and wasn’t about to be bought by developers.
An effort like CURA requires many things to be successful - among them luck, dedication and amazing people. This all came together recently in the person of Duncan Cheung, a Hong Kong native and a sophomore at Tufts University. Duncan found me and offered to give a year of his life to advocating for water in China. Keepers funded him to work with CURA and he did so, living on less than $200 a month. Duncan established all the necessary research and government contacts to get this project off the ground. In the process, he trained about a dozen university students, building relationships by teaching ballroom dancing. The mayor of Chengdu said that a report Duncan prepared was the most impressive he has ever read.
Perhaps the most striking development is that a Chinese business gave $100,000 RMB ($12,500 US) to CURA for its Model Village Project. This is a big deal. It is very rare in China for an urban business to give money for sustainable rural development. This business also gave $10,000 RMB ($1,250 US) to bring me in, because they credited me as the genesis of this whole endeavor. This has led me to a get to know these young businessmen who have organized to clean up rivers and to restore and protect water systems. They said that they had more prosperity than they ever expected, and now they wanted to give something back.
After 10 years of involvement in Chengdu, I find many pieces are coming together. Environmental education is becoming a part of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots organization, with Keepers of the Waters contributing its water education component. CURA’s Model Village is now networked with Jane Goodall and outside resources. Keepers is now initiating watershed mapping and biological wastewater treatment. The Moon Bear Rescue Center, founded by Jill Robinson in southern China, would like a biological wastewater treatment system to establish a model for bringing together animal habitat, sustainable ecosystems and environmental education in one program. To see more about their remarkable projects, go to www.Animalsasia.org
Environmental efforts must be collaborations that focus on larger systems, with organizations, government institutions, groups and individuals coming together for sustainability. In my lectures in both the U.S. and China, I serve as a proponent that water is the foundation of both the natural environment and the built environment, and with generous support of our funders and advocates, we are creating models and educating future generations. I am very pleased that by recognizing water as the foundation of life, we have come to communicate with almost every urban and rural entity.
The tide is turning, and the idea of living water is becoming accepted. That we have to see things through this perspective and act accordingly is no longer in question. Figuring out how to do it remains our job. This is why we have to have the Keepers of the Waters network. Our next job is communicating and teaching, advocating for systems planning and design, along with constantly finding new ways to do things. Our Keepers work in China is an excellent example of all these callings.
- Article by Betsy Damon and Paul Gerald
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