Public Lab Research note

Guilin Pharma mapping

by shanlter | February 07, 2016 08:59 07 Feb 08:59 | #12667 | #12667

shanlter was awarded the Watchdog Barnstar by Bronwen for their work in this research note.

What I want to do

First time we try to apply the Balloon and Kites Mapping tools on investigating environmental issues in China. We wanted to conduct our aerial photography shooting at a pharmaceutical factory in Guilin, hope to see what it was like inside the pharmaceutical plant, how the sewage system worked and if there were any illegal activities going on in the plant.

Research Background

Guilin, located in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China, which is world-famous for its peculiar Karst landform. Most of the tourist guidebooks about China put Guilin on the must-visit Lists.


Photo from chinatravelca

There is an interesting fact about Guilin, however, rarely mentioned. Guilin Pharma is an important pharmaceutical production base for the Active pharmaceutical ingredients of artemisinin, for which Mrs. Tu Youyou received the Nobel Prize in natural sciences as the first laureate officially recognized by the Chinese authorities. It was a former state owned pharmaceutical plant originally called “Guangxi Province Guilin City Pharmaceutical Plant”.

After the reforming and overhauling of state sector in 2004, there has been constant media coverage about how this pharmaceutical plant has been polluting the environment. The plant and the residential area next to it are only separated by a wall. The industrial sewage and the urban rainwater are both discharged into the same sewage system. The residents are suffering from water and air pollution greatly. Last year in May, there was black water coming out of the sewage wells and the whole compound was covered in smelly water. Residents in this compound are mostly retired workers from former state-owned enterprises. The current owners of those companies don’t care about them anymore.


Mr. Yang Chaojin, whose livelihood is depended on fish farming, contacted 20 acres of fishponds to farm fish in 10 years ago. In 2014 all of the fish he farmed died over night. He was convinced that it was because of the sewage water the plant had been discharging into the ponds. He has been trying to quest for answers from the plant in the past couple of years. As an attempt to avoid trouble, the plant gave him 5000rmb in total as compensation. According to what he told us, fish wouldn’t survive in those ponds anymore so now he is farming duck instead.


My attempt and results

One day before we shot the aerial photos of Guilin Pharma, we did a trial run on another pharmaceutical plant called Guilin Huaxin Pharmaceutical Plant. Guilin Huaxin has similar sewage and air pollution issues like Guilin Pharma and it has taken a toll on the local living around the plant.

There was this particularly weird wind draft so we got two plans. We could fly either kites or balloons.

Liz had already set up pendulum rig on the train. Zhang Zhang attached vinyl to the camera for protection. We downloaded the mobius application at the hotel and set the camera onto auto pilot mode so it would automatically take a picture every 5 seconds.

We got our hands on a bottle of helium from a Chinese New Year decoration store . Though the volume was not specifically clarified or marked on the bottle. Liz didn’t think even think it was pure helium in the bottle . Still it was enough for blowing 5 rubber balloons ( around 80cm in diameter ) and 12 foil balloons ( around 40-50cm in diameter).

IMG_20160118_110556743_HDR.jpg IMG_20160118_112355440.jpg

We failed to fly the kite since the draft was not strong enough and there were a lot of electric wires around. So we decided to switch to balloons.

Approximately 12 of those foil balloons could barely hold up one stick pendulum rig.

While we were flying the balloons, many people passed by and looked at us. Later on we found that there was a funeral going on in the neighborhood . But we still flew the colorful balloons in the sky while the funeral was on.

After spending 5 minutes in the air, the balloons got caught by some electric wires and exploded. We were really shocked. The camera was blown away. Just when we were about to leave, another balloon got blown onto another wire and it caused a second explosion. Luckily nothing more serious happened. We were truly lucky since we didn’t use hydrogen. It was one of the possibilities we considered while we were shopping for a bottle of gas.



( Later we happened to see a similar scene on Breaking Bad Season 3)


We found the camera on a roof.... and found the lens cap was not taken off....

We tried a different approach afterwards. We tied the camera on the top of a long bamboo stick and stuck it over the fence wall of the pharmaceutical plant. We got this photo.


Shizi, our environmental engineer suspected that the blue barrels were dumpsters for hazard wastes. We didn’t obtained more valuable information other than that.

Afterwards we practiced flying the kite near Guilin Pharma. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction to the plant . We only got to take photos of one corner of the pharmaceutical plant and many photos were blurry. We assumed it was because the sky was a bit dark and the shutter speed was too slow. ( However we couldn’t set the shutter speed on the application).


It wasn’t too windy the next day. The first thing we did was to buy two bottles of helium . This time we used rubber balloons instead which made it possible to pump in more gas. Then we went to Yang Chaojin’s.

First we went for 5 rubber balloons with 2 foil balloons . It was strong enough to lift up the device. Since it was noon, the automatic shutter speed was pretty ideal and the photos were not blurry.



Liz suggested that we should use more balloons and we went for it. The wind direction was pretty good. We used 2 reels of threads and the balloons went like 800 to 1000 meters away (little dot in the sky).

Photos we've got:

Moses are growing in Those sewage pools ( three rectangular pools) . It looks like they have been out of service for a pretty long time.


A full view of the pharmaceutical plant : surround by mountains, great physical features.


the world-famous Shitou Hill of Guilin is right next to it.

It was quite a thrilling process retrieving the balloons.

After we got the balloons back, we found that the threads tiding to the balloons were almost cut through. We couldn’t come up with an explanation but suspected that it got scratched by some tree branches.


We ARE happy :) Kim: Documentary photographer Liz: Chinese Love Liz Barry! Shizi: Environmental engineer, expert on water quality Zhangzhang: Educational product designer Shan(me): Chinese Green NGOer


Another mission of the trip is eating.

Questions and next steps

Still not sure if it's safe to publish those aerial photo in China, also trying to figure out effective ways to help victims to improve their living environment. Will do some communication work after Chinese New Year. We need to improve our flying skills, and find some good kites.


After mapping, we give all our balloon to the fisherman, to let his home look better


I think the most excited part was the filming of the scene of Breaking bad, hehe :) . Anyway the rest of the day seems to have been amazing too. Thank you for this post which made me feel like I was there too, I think I'll never have the chance to see these Karst landforms in real .

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@Bronwen awards a barnstar to shanlter for their awesome contribution!

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Is there anyway the water temperature can be measured? In one of these cases, the claim was that the DO was lower due to increased temperature. That was the reason the fish died.

It would be an extra weapon in the arsonal.

Can a sample be sent to a stateside lab for analysis? Or are too many politics involved? Thanks

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