Alibaba users roped into national water quality survey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 5:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 6:19pm

China's battle against pollution is getting some help from Jack Ma Yun's 500-million-strong army of mobile internet users.

Alibaba Group Holding, the e-commerce giant founded by Ma, is asking the public to participate in mapping water quality across the country to raise environmental awareness.

With palm-sized testing kits sold through the company for about 65 yuan (HK$82), volunteers can measure pollutants in freshwater sources and upload the data to a digital map via smartphones.

The programme, still in its initial stage, may prove to be a test of the government's resolve in cleaning up the environment.

While harnessing the world's largest group of internet users might help the cause, the data could also shine a critical light on the government's performance in particular regions or cities.

"The message that it gets out to the Chinese people is, 'Yes, you can measure this stuff, you have the right to find out what's in your water, what's in your air,' and that you have the right to ask your government to do something about it," Judith Shapiro, author of China's Environmental Challenges, said.

By collecting and publicising information about local pollution, Alibaba could rankle officials who are responsible for those districts and threaten companies that are responsible.

The courts have jailed environmental activists, including Wu Lihong, who campaigned against chemical companies he blamed for causing an algae bloom and choking a lake near Shanghai.

"It may be a little risky," Shapiro said of Alibaba's initiative. "They must have some kind of confidence from the central government that this is going to be OK for them to do."

The company declined to comment on what role the government plays in its effort. The Ministry of Civil Affairs could not immediately comment, said a person at the ministry, who declined to give her full name.

Alibaba's Taobao Marketplace boasts half a billion users, which has helped make Ma China's fourth-richest man.

The 49-year-old said last year he wanted to help make the nation's "water clearer, skies bluer, and food more secure".

An environmental fund started by his company has raised at least 50 million yuan from donors, according to its website.

Environmental degradation and pollution are threatening growth in the world's second-largest economy.

That prompted Premier Li Keqiang to promise greater efforts to tackle the problem in a speech at last month's National People's Congress.

Sixteen mainland cities are listed among the planet's 20 most-polluted, according to World Bank estimates.