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YiYang Cao Researching Water Pollution in China

Levitt Fellow Hopes to Raise Awareness of the Problem

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted August 15, 2006
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When YiYang Cao '09 picked up National Geographic in the spring of his sophomore year in high school, he read an article about pollution in China; later, visiting Shanghai, he saw the extent of the local water pollution. But it was the industrial accident which, in November of last year, caused the dumping of toxic carcinogens into a major river that really prompted Cao to act. "From then on," he said, "I decided that if I was given a chance, I would study China's pollution problems and its waters."

Spurred by this ambition, Cao applied for and was granted a Levitt Fellowship to research water pollution in China. He was advised by William R. Kenan Professor of Government Cheng Li.

China has the fourth-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, but it also faces what Cao calls "a huge threat to its growth potential" in wide-spread water pollution. China has been experiencing an increasingly severe water shortage in the past few years, despite possession of the sixth-largest freshwater resources in the world. In per capita water distribution the country is ranked among the bottom 13 in the world, partly because of the high population density. Environmentalists argue that China's water supply is only capable of supporting half of its current population on a sustainable basis.

These problems are exacerbated by the "callous" treatment of the environment and the extreme water pollution practiced by the major industries. "As China continues to modernize," says Cao, "its thirst for water will be the greatest restriction to the development and growth of the economy."

Cao had originally planned to conduct some of his research in China through interviews and first-hand examination of water sources, but after reading government publications and reports, he decided that going to China would not necessarily provide him with the factual information he needed (he feels that the numbers in official government publications are not always accurate).

He remained in New York City and used instead statistical data and information from China's "Statistical Yearbook." He also read United Nations publications, books, and many news articles.

Just as the research method changed, so too did the scope of the project. Where Cao at first wanted to "provide possible solutions to China's water situation by looking at how other countries coped with similar excessive water consumption and pollution," he soon realized that the problem was larger and more complex than he had originally pictured. "I decided that I could not hope to provide any tangible solutions," he said. He hopes instead to "raise awareness of the dire problems that China faces."

This is Cao's first experience doing funded summer research. He enjoyed it and said that "the money provides some added pressure for me to produce some tangible results usable by others." A rising sophomore, Cao has few plans yet for the future, but he will not completely abandon this project. "I do hope to continue to monitor the situation and maybe conduct a follow-up study in a year or two to document any changes," he said.

On the Hill, Cao is a member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers group (he redesigned their Web site after finishing his research). He plays French horn in the Orchestra and is an active intramural athlete, playing soccer and basketball.

The grant which funds his work is the Levitt Research Fellowship, given by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. This grant is intended to fund research in a public affairs issue and allows a student to spend 10 weeks working closely with a faculty advisor.

-- Lisbeth Redfield

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