River rescue

UQ students share their Chinese work experiences

Bachelor of Environmental Management students recently put their studies into practise in Wuhan, China, working with the WWF conservation NGO to improve the health of the Yangtze River. Students Harry James, Dylan Johnston and Natalie Mason share their experiences.

Harry James, Dylan Johnston and Natalie Mason in China.

Dylan Johnston

Unsure of what direction I wanted to pursue for my industry placement course, I was informed at a networking event of the opportunity to undertake my placement in China with aid from the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program. At first, I saw this as yet another one of those amazing opportunities UQ advertises all the time, where you think, “Wow, that would be an incredible experience”, but end up not doing anything about it. However, I soon realised that I simply could not leave this chance begging, and so I applied.

A couple of months later I found myself on my first ever international flight, and it was heading to China!

Following my arrival, I quickly realised that China truly differs to Australia in almost every way imaginable. The food (extremely spicy in Wuhan), the transport (are there even road rules?), the weather (Wuhan in summer is hotter than anything Australia has thrown at me), the people, the street life and of course the language. As a wide-eyed 19-year-old, being exposed to this seemingly new world was invigorating, exciting and terrifying all at the same time!

Working with WWF was an incredible experience. Everyone in the office was super friendly and all spoke considerably good English – a luxury in a non-tourist area such as Wuhan. My work entailed investigating the social perspective for the outlined ‘River Health Solutions for the Yangtze River’ project. The Yangtze River is often referred to as the heart and soul of China, however it is under severe stress from pollution created by human impacts. I developed a questionnaire (translated into Mandarin) to collect data on Chinese citizens’ perceptions, awareness, uses, reliance, behaviour, involvement and willingness to volunteer in relation to the Yangtze River.
Surveying Chinese citizens without any ability to speak Mandarin was a really interesting process. Some citizens absolutely adored me as they were so fascinated to see a Western individual – I personally did not see a non-Chinese person until a month into our stay in Wuhan.

I found many reacted to me saying Àodàlìyǎ (Australia in Chinese) with extreme joy and laughter, a theme which resonated throughout the entire three months.

Others however failed to enjoy my efforts of approaching them with a survey and a pen. I recall being kicked out of a popular shopping centre by security, as they thought I was trying to sell items to the public. They took my picture as I left the store and to this day I wonder if my photo is hung up on a wanted list at the complex! It goes without saying that I did not return to the Chuhehanjie shopping centre.

Overall, I surveyed 220 Chinese citizens and presented some truly insightful results that WWF staff say will be of great use to their future work. Since I have left, they have put my questionnaire online. It’s already had over 100 respondents! What I enjoyed most about my project was that I was able to interact with the Chinese people and focus my findings around them, enabling me to fully immerse myself in the China experience. I’ve learned that, although their culture may be drastically different to Australia’s, there is so much to learn from the people.

I could describe my trip as incredible, but that would still fail to capture just how life-changing my China experience was.

Natalie Mason
A scenic cruise up the majestic Xiling Gorge offered a momentary escape from the hustle of city life in Wuhan. Accompanied by our translator and colleague from WWF, Polly, we made our way up the Yangtze River to one of China’s most renowned engineering projects.

Sweltering in the hottest weather China has to offer, amid the cacophony of foreign voices, we slowly but surely navigated through the crowds to sneak our first views of the infamous Three Gorges Dam.

Nothing speaks greater volumes to the immensity and inconceivable feats of human engineering than when standing alongside the largest hydropower dam in the world.

The mass scale and landscape transformation caused by such a large development would form the basis of my research conducted for WWF for the duration of my industry placement in China. Water infrastructure projects have significantly altered the natural water flow regimes within the Yangtze River Basin, degrading ecosystems and disturbing accessibility to natural habitat for a diversity of the Yangtze’s unique ecology, including that of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, perhaps the happiest critically endangered species one might encounter.

My investigation into environmental flows and the restoration of the Yangtze’s hydrologic environment was driven by studies of water management much closer to home – an assessment of management practices in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Drawing on the lessons from the Australian case study, and knowledge I’d gathered through discussions with Professors from Wuhan University and the Chinese Institute of Hydrobiology, I formulated a series of recommendations for implementing programs in the Yangtze River Basin. These were provided to WWF to contribute to their ongoing collaborations with the government, industry and community with the ultimate aim to achieve ‘human-water harmony’.

The playful Yangtze River finless porpoises – a species now on the brink of extinction due to human impacts.

Harry James

My experiences studying environmental management at UQ have ranged from the unexpected to the simply unreal. Still, I never could have dreamt that in Semester 2 of 2017, I would undertake three months of industry placement in a bustling provincial hub in China, working with the world’s largest conservation organisation, WWF. Yet with funding from the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program, I soon found myself in Wuhan, a city in the heart of the Yangtze River Basin, diving head first into one of China’s most pressing environmental issues: river health.

Early on in the placement, I saw the tangible importance of ecological conservation in the Yangtze River Basin. A field trip to the Yangtze Cetacean Research Centre brought us face-to-face with four playful Yangtze River finless porpoises – a species now on the brink of extinction due to human impacts.

The status of the Yangtze’s aptly named ‘smiling angels’ provides one of many ecological warning signs of declining river health.

However, management of the Yangtze is currently limited by a lack of ecological monitoring that can diagnose human stressors and prioritise management actions. It was this issue that I tackled during my time at WWF, through the creation of an ecosystem health index.

When I wasn’t researching literature in the office, I got the chance to meet with researchers at the local Institute of Hydrobiology and Wuhan University, where I gained great insights into river health assessment procedures in China. This knowledge was crucial for developing an ecosystem health index that would be locally applicable for the Yangtze River.

The work I did with WWF was challenging and rewarding, and gave me valuable career experience in the world of conservation NGOs.

But ultimately, it was the time I spent outside the office that was truly unforgettable. Following the placement, we travelled west into Sichuan province, where we walked in the shadows of enormous snow-capped mountains. Seeing this sort of natural beauty first-hand is what inspires me to create change in the environmental management field.

China truly has nature that is worth conserving.