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The Shang-ao Tang river meanders through Shanghai, China’s most crowded city. Its once murky waters used to be choked with garbage and sewage. But now they teem with so many fish that anglers have returned. The remarkable transformation is partly thanks to a student environmental project.

“Healthy rivers contain micro-organisms that break down waste,” said Wang Zhen, one of the students behind the project. “But pollution kills the microbes and rivers then lose their natural cleaning ability.”

As China’s urban population has exploded and energy demand has soared, the government has had to find ways to balance rapid progress with environmental impact. Major corporations and non-profit organisations have complemented the effort with their own initiatives.

Wang and classmate Tang Liqi, both 17, won a competition that encourages children to develop effective ways to improve their environment. Theirs became one of dozens of projects supported each year by the Shell Better Environment Scheme. A panel of independent judges from universities, high schools and environmental groups picks proposals with the greatest likelihood of practical success, said Linda Jia, who manages the scheme.

From lab to river

Wang and Tang found that encouraging the growth of some types of water plants creates a habitat for pollutant-eating micro-organisms. In their school lab they tested local water plants such as hornwart, calamus and chrysanthemum to see which can happily co-habit. After cultivating the right mix of plants in the lab, the boys transplanted them to the river. With help from other volunteers, they floated the plants on plastic pipes layered over with netting.

In the past year the plants have flourished, releasing oxygen, removing carbon dioxide, harvesting microbes and attracting fish. The boys had to clear plastic bottles and other garbage by hand,  but the microbes have decomposed most of the grime along the river’s 2 kilometre stretch.

The boys say that the water quality is now close to meeting national safety standards and they plan to replicate their approach in clogged rivers elsewhere. “We have created a natural ecosystem for plants and fish to live again,” said Tang. 

The Shell programme was launched in Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, in 1996, and now runs in 26 Chinese cities. It has spread to Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin and increasingly into less developed regions.            

In annual competitions, more than 1.65 million students have proposed over 90,000 ideas so far, many of them simple yet surprisingly effective. They range from using oleander leaves as natural pesticides to capturing rain water to generate electricity. Shell provides funds to help turn promising ideas into reality.