Zhong Yu has worked for Greenpeace East Asia for over seven years and has witnessed some of the most devastating environmental disasters there from rapid glacier retreat on the Himalayas, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to last summer’s devastating Dalian oil spill. Here, she writes about the undercover research behind our latest report, which exposes the terrible impact that China’s growing textile industry is having on the country’s rivers.

Zhong Yu during the clean-up of the Dalian oil spill
Zhong Yu during the clean-up of the Dalian oil spill
All rights reserved. Credit: © Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Every time I go out to do fieldwork, I lose a pair of shoes. Last year, investigating the July 2010 Dalian oil spill, I destroyed two pairs. This year, at a waste water discharge pipe on the Fenghua River, I destroyed a pair of shoes and one foot.

What can I say. I know that every bit of personal protection is necessary for Greenpeace campaigners doing fieldwork, but sometimes it’s just too eye-catching. To avoid attracting attention, I pretend to be someone out for morning exercises. I put on my running shoes and join the old grandpas and grannies out by the river at 4am.

The discharge pipe is just underneath the river dyke. It boldly dumps waste water of all colours 24 hours a day, the water’s colours changing between red, black, pea green and dark grey.

Seizing a moment when no one was watching me, I quickly jumped down the two-meter-tall dyke. I thought I picked a good spot, but I had misjudged: the ground which had appeared to be as hard as cement was actually muddy and wet with waste water seepage.

Just like that, my foot sunk into the bog of mud and waste water. Ruining my shoes was no big deal, but the gunk on my foot was unimaginably disgusting. That night, my foot began to itch like mad. It turned red, and the next day, erupted in red spots. Eventually my skin started peeling, layer by layer.

It’s now been a month, but my foot still has not recovered. The wastewater samples we collected from this discharge pipe tested positive for alkylphenols (octylphenols) and perfluorooctanoic acid, both known to be hormone disrupters and can be hazardous even at low levels, as well as some substances damaging to the skin.

The Fenghua River, and its discharges of wastewater, flow directly through Ningbo, one of China’s oldest cities, with a population of 2.2 million, in Zhejiang province. What kind of river will this be in the future?

Gazing at the slate-dark river, I thought of the poem Dreams For Horses by Hai Zi.

Facing the river I am infinitely ashamed
I have idled away the years and now only have a weary body
Just as all the other poets with dreams for horses
The time passes easily, not a drop remains
In the drop of water is a horse, life extinguished.

I don’t want to be that person, exhausted and infinitely ashamed – and that’s why I work for Greenpeace. It’s hard making change happen in China but I’ve seen it happen, and every time it does my resolve to keep going, to help make a difference, grows stronger.

Find out more about Greenpeace's latest campaign Detox:

>> Dirty Laundry: Unravelling corporate connections to toxic pollution (report)
>> Dirty Laundry: The background behind the Detox campaign (video)
>> Nike vs Adidas: The Detox Challenge (video)
>> Nike & Adidas: time to Detox the world’s water (story)
>> Toxic water pollution and textile manufacturing in China (Flickr Gallery)