2010 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Huo Daishan snapped some photos that started a movement to clean the Huai Riiver in China. Some pictures paint a thousand words, while others spark environmental revolutions.

Children wearing gas masks in a classroom. Thousands of dead fish crowding the riverbanks. A thick coat of purplish foam, sometimes turning into pitch-black sludge, covering miles and miles of China’s once mighty, but now dying, Huai river.

Hou Daishan hung the stark images on a clothesline on a street in his village in Shenqui, Henan province, in central China. It was the first of more than 80 exhibitions the former photo-journalist would mount after beginning a campaign in 2001 to save Huai and its tributaries from severe industrial pollution which had scarred many communities along its path.

Hou launched his disturbing clothesline exhibit almost three years after he had quit his job at the Zhou Kou Daily when the newspaper refused to publish the photographs he took in his hometown.

It all began when he heard of reports about children wearing gas masks in a classroom to protect themselves from the poisonous gas discharged by the river.

“I wanted to shoot pictures of a school, but you’d have to take masks into class with you,” Hou recalls in an interview with Radio Free Asia. “It’s next to a watergate, so I went over to look at the school’s situation and condition of the river. I noticed there were a lot dead fish, and the water was dark and smelly.”

“These pictures went against the purpose of the newspaper as propaganda,” he explains why the photos were not published. The local authorities and unscrupulous polluters, Hou had learned, had been covering up the mess and giving misleading reports to Beijing. His paper had to toe the line.

At that time, reports about pollution were rarely ever seen, according to Chen Guidi, a writer familiar with Hou’s crusade.

“The national news media wasn’t looking at these kinds of things,” he was quoted in a report. “Apart from our State Environmental Protection agency newspaper, the China Environment, they (the media) regarded it negatively.”

Originating from the Tongbai mountains, China’s third largest river stretches for over 1,100 kilometers , feeding agricultural lands in Henan, China’s breadbasket, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui provinces which are home to 180 million people.

Cut off from the sea, Huai has long been known for the heavy flooding brought by the annual monsoon rains that swamp and inflict misery on the people living in thousands of villages along its riverbanks.

In 1949, the late Chairman Mao Ze Dong began implementing a massive infrastructure to stem flooding and channel the river for irrigation and water conservation projects that increased grain yield to nearly one-fifth of the China’s grain output.

A major attempt to control pollution in Huai was first undertaken by the central government in 1995 through the “Three Rivers and Three Lakes Project” which centered on Huai.

By that time, China’s economic expansion had reached Henan and its neighboring provinces. Factories mushroomed along the Huai. It was not long before its waters had turned to a cesspool and the fragrant smell of newly-harvested rice changed into toxic fumes that continue to plague today’s riverine folk.

The discharges that flowed into Huai had become so dirty that there was talk that six people, who were walking by the main sewage outlet of Fuyang city in Anhui province, suffocated and fell dead.

When Hou began his one-man campaign, he would also discover the emergence of cancer villages along the Shaying river, a main tributary of Huai, in Shenqui. In Huangmengying village, the victims lived near ditches and ponds filled with water from Shaying.

In an interview with Global Times, he points out that those “who lived closest to the water were among the first to die and villages located nearest the worst grade of water suffered the highest cancer rates.”

A folk song, perhaps, best describes how Huai’s condition had changed since the 1950s. It goes like this:

“In the 1950s, we rinsed rice in the river;

“In the 1960s, we used river water to wash clothes and irrigate;

“In the 1970s, water quality turned bad;

“In the 1980s, fish and shrimps were all dead;

“In the 1990s, getting cancer is the fate of many.”

The death of his mother and a childhood friend from cancer spurred Hou to form the “Guardians of Huai River” in 2003. He would be joined by his wife, Dong Sulin, and later on, his two sons, after thugs beat him badly in one of his fact-finding sorties.

The fledgling group gathered support from volunteers and evolve into a network that has since linked up with companies, local authorities, and the government to clean up Huai.

It set up water filtration systems, dug up deepwater wells, and provided medicines for cancer-stricken patients in villages suffering most from the degradation of the river.

In 2004, flooding in the upper reaches of Huai forced the opening of dams which allowed pollutants to engulf 150 kilometers down the river, triggering an outcry in the affected communities.

This led the central government to embark on a US$ 2.4 billion project to purge toxic material out of Haui and stop polluters from further poisoning the river.

China’s State Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) says that paper-making, chemical, beverage, textile and food companies have poured “millions of tons of waste and urban sewage…into the river for years”.

According to a report, numerous small paper mills and other polluting firms were closed down and others penalized during the clean-up campaign.

While acknowledging that gains have been achieved, the 56-year old Hou knows he won’t probably get to see tipping point within his lifetime. But he has high hopes that with greater public involvement, life would return to the great river Huai.

He dreams of the time when the photographs that he once hung on a clothesline, which now total to over 15,000, will be replaced by what he still stores in his mind – of children swimming and people catching fish in the clear blue waters of Huai.