ΧΙ. “Foul & Filthy Rivers” reporting mechanism in China

Interaction type

Public → Government → Public

Trigger event China’s “Water Ten” Action Plan (April 2015)
Domain Environmental Planning
Organisation Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE)
Actors Ministry of Environmental Protection of P.R.C. (MEP),
Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of P.R.C. (MoHURD),
Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE),
Local NGOs in the Green Choice Alliance (GCA) and
General public.
Data sets Interactive live map of the locations of “foul & filthy rivers” designated for clean-up and public reports of additional polluted waters; live mapping of supervision information from the public illustrating the status of rectification efforts as compared to clean-up deadlines for waters officially designated for clean-up.
Process Through a series of meetings and communications, IPE officially launched a cooperative relationship with MEP and MoHURD to link IPE’s Blue Map app directly to the government reporting platforms that had initially been established via WeChat. Once integrated, reports raised via the Blue Map app are directly sent to the government ministries, whose responses to the reports are also sent directly to the app for display.
Feedback Interactive real-time map of polluted urban bodies of water across China’s cities, communication records of government responses to public reports, live tracking of government’s clean-up efforts.
Goal 1.      Enable the public to report polluted bodies of water not initially on government lists designated for cleanup.

2.      Allow the public to effectively supervise government rectification efforts of polluted waters in order to ensure deadlines are met and government statistics are verified.

Side effects Initial reporting mechanism led to the realization that many polluted waters designated for clean-up were or were not on track to meet government deadlines. Therefore, while the initial module in the app only included a function for the public to report polluted rivers not already designated for cleanup, a second function was incorporated for the public to upload “supervision” reports toward on-site progress toward rectification (or lack thereof).
Impact of the project Impact in a national level
Temporal pattern Ongoing process
Funding of the project The Blue Map App (蔚蓝地图)is supported by SEE Foundation and Alibaba Foundation.
Contact point

Kate Logan

To address China’s severe water pollution challenges, in April 2015, the Chinese government issued its Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan, a national-level plan to improve the quality of China’s rivers, lakes, aquifers, and other bodies of water. Part of the “Water Ten” action plan, as it is commonly called, is an initiative called “hei chou he” in Chinese, which translates as “black and smelly” or “foul and filthy” rivers. The initiative aims to reduce the percentage of waters in urban areas designated as “foul and filthy” (in other words, severely polluted) to less than 10 percent of the total by 2020. Those remaining must be cleaned up completely by 2030. MEP and MoHURD launched the initiative just after the 2016 Chinese New Year holiday by publishing the names and detailed statistics about the water bodies designated by the government for clean-up. In addition, the two ministries created a public reporting mechanism via popular Chinese social media app WeChat, where citizens can report polluted bodies of water to be included in the list and received a guaranteed response from the government in seven working days or less.

To create a mechanism for public supervision to help implement the “foul & filthy rivers” campaign, the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) worked with MEP and MoHURD to integrate a reporting mechanism into IPE’s Blue Map app. The initial idea behind the reporting mechanism was to leverage the Blue Map app’s user-friendliness and roughly 3 million downloads to help tap into public support for supervision of the initiative. The “foul and filthy rivers” reporting module on the Blue Map app went live in August 2016, about half a year after the initial reporting mechanism was launched by the government bureaus via WeChat. The module allows users located within 10 meters of a body of water to upload a photo and fill in information with a report, which will then be submitted directly to the two government bureaus’ back-end system. The report will also show up with photos and text on an interactive map on the front-end of the app, and the government will be able to send their responses to be posted on the app as part of the report.

Once the reporting module had been launched, IPE leveraged the support of NGOs in its Green Choice Alliance (GCA) of grassroots environmental groups located across China. While IPE had already been working with many of these groups to raise reports via the governments’ own WeChat mechanism launched in February 2016, once the module was integrated into the Blue Map app, IPE worked with these groups to systematically raise reports in their respective urban locations across China and track government responses. These reports created a live public mapping of public complaints of polluted waters accessible via the app and IPE’s website, allowing for citizens to view such reports, as well as the government responses uploaded to these reports. Based on this public supervision mechanism, IPE compiled its Foul & Filthy Rivers Phase I and Phase II reports comparing observations from citizens and environmental groups concerning the actual situation on the ground to the data and figures being published and circulated by the government ministries.

Up through early April 2017, official figures stated that of over 2000 bodies over water had been named to the foul and filthy rivers government clean-up list, of which 726 were listed as having completed rectification and 592 were still in the process of being cleaned up. As a result, building on IPE’s initial work to report polluted waters, IPE adjusted the module on the app to add a second button called “observation” (as compared to the original “report” button). This channel allows IPE to better collaborate with NGO partners to supervise on-the-ground progress toward cleanup with an emphasis on whether or not the waters are on track to meet their government-set deadlines, many of which are quite tight — as early as 2017 or 2018. For those waters already deemed as having completed rectification, local partners may assess whether or not that judgment appears to be accurate and may upload photos to support their observation. As the foul and filthy rivers policy is ongoing, the app’s platform will continue to collect, collate and display reports and to help support the government in verifying that their clean-up work is satisfactory in the public’s eyes.

The successes of the foul and filthy rivers reporting module for public supervision are largely a result of two factors: 1) transparency; and 2) interactive channels for public participation. In terms of transparency, because the platform is completely public, anyone can view all reports, photos, responses, and make judgements for them about the information contained within. Secondly, the module allows for any use of the app to participate by completing a report, creating an official and responsive mechanism for the government to process and react to public opinion and allowing the government to tailor its clean-up efforts to ensure they satisfy the public’s views.

One of the shortcomings of the case study is the differences in government responsiveness across regions and limitations of public power to push for greater responsiveness. Because the policy was adopted at the national level, but clean-up efforts are being implemented locally, the level of responsiveness varies depending on the local government. It may sometimes be difficult to influence these responses with support from additional actors. Another limitation is the achieving the sustained involvement of the public. Although this can be difficult — especially in individual cities on a national level — IPE has partially confronted this challenge by leveraging the support of the GCA network and active communications with NGOs located throughout China to continue implementing supervision efforts on a local level.

The value of this case study lies in leveraging transparency and public participation for implementation of a government initiative for pollution control.

Main Lessons:

  1. Transparency: All reports made via the app and government responses and publicly accessible for anyone to access and analyze.
  2. Scalability: The module is applicable to cities nationwide across China, allowing IPE to leverage the participation and support of the GCA network and help the government implement a national-level policy on a local level in different cities.
  3. Responsiveness: The government commits to responding to each publicly-raised report in seven days or less. Because the platform is publicly-accessible, it is evident where the government is or is not complying with this commitment.
  4. Real-time: The platform is updated in real-time with new information about reports and observations. All reports are time-stamped so that it is clear how the situation has changed over time.
  5. Communication & collaboration: The platform enables the public to directly interact with the government concerning issues raised, providing an official channel for citizens to raise their views. The government can then issue additional information via the platform after they enact follow-up investigations, in some cases even leading to meetings between environmental NGOs and government officials to collaboratively solve issues.
  6. Verifiable: Users need to be logged in to an account and located within 10 meters of a river before being able to upload a report about that river.