War for Water: Let the Battle Begin

“What are we doing tomorrow?” they asked that morning as we prepared to head out to Lashihai.

“Tomorrow,” I said, “we are going to the village … and we’re going to pick up trash.”

As these words penetrated the atmosphere, I could see the light going out of the eyes of some of our students. More than one mouth was held slightly open. There were no cheers, no smiles, no shouts of excitement. Just a long and conspicuous, uncomfortable and awkward, uninterrupted silence. I explained on.

The village where we were going, Nanyao, got their water from deep in the mountains, from a beautiful spring that swelled up from the earth and was protected by sacred rocks and prayer flags. The water was clear, cold, transparent, and drinkable just as it was. Not only did it serve Nanyao Village, but many others in the valley.

There was only one problem: the area surrounding the water source was a complete and utter mess. Littered with bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, takeout boxes — any kind of trash you can imagine — this beautiful water source was, unfortunately, one big fat ugly eyesore.

Part of the problem was that it was a popular place, not just for tourists but also for locals who seemed to come here to relax, unwind, have a barbeque, play cards. Tourists, meanwhile, were taken up here by the local guides, usually on a horse, then taken back down again, but more often than not lessened by the burden of their bits of inconvenient-to-carry trash.

Litter is not a problem particular to Yunnan, or to Lijiang, or to Lashihai. In fact, litter is what I would consider one of modern China’s biggest problems: As the country opens up and gains more access to consumer goods, it is also discovering it doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with such consumption, or the amount of trash that such consumerism incurs.

So that is why I, with crossed fingers, swung this idea of picking up trash by our Norfolk squad, and though unsure at first, I was delighted to see that by the end of our morning meeting, heads were held up high, eyes squinted with determination, as if to say: All right. We’re ready. Squad, let’s do this.

We had our three Fellows — Will, Ryan and Alix — lead the way on this project. Borrowing from what they had learned as Chesapeake Bay, Global Health, and International Relations Fellows, respectively, the three quickly mapped out a plan of action: Will would lead the clean-up team while Ryan would survey the community. Meanwhile, Alix would come up with the concept behind our campaign to clean-up this important and invaluable resource.

If there’s one thing or concern or worry that seems to unite the youth the world over, it’s an awareness of the fragility of our natural environment. After all, it is the youth that is to inherit this world, or whatever is left of it. And it is the youth that seems to understand that we all need to pitch in and take responsibility for our actions, and our carbon footprint.

I was so happy and proud to see our Norfolk squad, waists bent, crouching down, filling trash bag after trash bag with garbage, and slowly watching the beauty of the nature reemerge from the ashes. There was no complaining, no feeling squeamish. Every student put in an effort, and by the end of it, we had made a genuine difference, a difference that was manifold.

Not only did we clean up our physical surroundings, I think it was Connor who said it best, that this activity made us all walk away feeling like better human beings. The local Naxi women came up to us to thank us for doing what they wished they had time to do, but could not manage because they were so absorbed by their everyday struggle to make ends meet. Tourists that passed through as we went about our pick-up took note of what we were doing, with one girl even saying, “how embarrassing! These foreigners have come all the way to China to pick up our trash?”

And so, if this project made just one Chinese person more aware and responsible for their consumption patterns, I would say it was a success. If this project made it’s own participants more aware of the difference even a small group of students can make, I would say it was a success. If this project could make one old lady happy to see her homeland restored to the days of her youth, I would say it was a success. And if this project had people walking away feeling like champions, I would say it was a success.

And so it was: A success. Though hopefully not the be-all and end-all, but rather, the beginning of what could potentially be an international phenomenon, a revolution to save the planet, a calling out to all people to be responsible human beings for the sake of our collective future.

The day of our Lashihai water source clean-up project (June 21) really was one of my favorite days of the entire trip. I’m not a mother but I feel like I was bubbling with what must have been a sort of motherly pride at watching her kids blossom into responsible, thoughtful, hardworking human beings and compassionate young adults.

Norfolk squad, if you’re reading this, it means you’ve arrived back home. You’re comfortable in your own beds, surrounded by the people you love. I hope this experience of picking up trash stays with you, as with everyday you’ve spent in China. I hope you never forget the memories you’ve made here, your accomplishments and your growth. Thank you for coming to China, for being open-minded and willing to get downright good and grimy. I’m so extremely proud at how far you all have come. Truly, it was a privilege to have been your instructor.

Squad Leader Liang, over and out.