At the end of April 2017, I ran the last few kilometers of a crazy quest. This is going to sound a little nuts, but it all started on March 22, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada, when I began to run a marathon a day for 40 days along rivers around the world to draw attention to the global water crisis. When I finished ― at the end of April 2017 ― I’d run 1,688 kilometers.
I’m not one of those natural-born athletes. I was never a sporty kid. I couldn’t figure out how to make my body do what I wanted it to, and I quickly withdrew to the things I knew – intellectual pursuits like schoolwork. I dreaded the selection of sports teams because for sure I would be one of the last to be picked.
A global movement
In London, running along the River Thames six weeks after I started #Run4Water it dawned on me that this epic ultra-quest was harder than I could have imagined. My toenails were gone, my whole body was in pain, and sometimes my legs just stop working. The one question that people keep asking me is: Why did I do it. And how did I keep going?
I kept going because I believed that by finishing the challenge I would draw more people’s attention to the global water crisis. Running 40 marathons in 40 days wasn’t easy, but that was the point. We need people to go beyond what is comfortable and known to commit to saving water. If we don’t, by 2030 the demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent.
My journey over six weeks in March and April 2017 took me to Las Vegas, Sao Paulo and Cairo, as well as Shanghai, The Amazon, Australia, and London. Each of these cities is built around a river, and each has different water issues and different lessons to teach. Here is what I learned.
Las Vegas: Turning scarcity into abundance through innovation
The Colorado river is America’s hardest working river, providing water to 40 million people, but so much water is exported from this river that it no longer even makes it to the ocean.
As I landed in Nevada, a two-year water restriction was still in force because of a long drought. The drought should make Las Vegas vulnerable to water scarcity, but the city’s smart, innovative approach to water has reinvented the region’s relationship with water.
Las Vegas has used innovation to turn water from a problem into an opportunity. By becoming more water-conscious Las Vegas has reduced its water intake by 37 percent in just under a decade and a half. This while increasing its population by some 500,000.
The Amazon: No time to graze
As I headed off to run alongside part of the Amazon River, a downpour turned most of the trails I was running into thick mud. An old hip injury I picked up during training returned because of the uneven surface.
In the Amazon in Brazil I learned about that country’s “flying rivers.” These aerial “rivers” move above the canopy of trees, and are just as important as the world’s longest river, the Amazon. Trees in the Amazon’s vast rainforest work like bionic pumps, sucking water from the ground and releasing this into the atmosphere as vapor.
These billions of tons of water vapor are swept across the region, becoming “flying rivers” that provide water to benefit not only Brazil, but Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname.
Disturbingly, the Amazon is under threat because some 20 percent of the rainforest has been decimated. Scientists say that if another 20 percent of the rainforest is lost the Amazon’s ecosystem will begin to collapse.
Then there was the heat and the insects. Running in the sweltering jungle, with its choking humidity and thick, heavy air, sapped my energy. My body poured with sweat in an effort to stay cool. Despite the heat, I had to keep my jacket on as it was a repellent to relentless mosquitos. Things got real pretty quickly, and when I couldn’t run I slowed down to a fast walk.
Melbourne: Do what is necessary even if it hurts
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, with the least amount of water in rivers. I came back to the place I grew up because I know Aussies are survivors and have a lot to teach the world about water management.
The run got extremely hard in Australia. My calves and ankles were in burning pain. But what I have learned is that the memory of pain fades. If I could just keep going, it would be worth it. And I actually think this is a fitting metaphor for what Australia has done. They made changes in water management that were hard but ultimately worth it. The most worthwhile things are never easy.
Shanghai: There’s hope!
In Shanghai, China, I had to use a mask to protect me from the pollution — it felt like breathing through a straw. I was running along the Yangtze when I felt a familiar burn in my throat and chest. Having lived in China for 10 years, I knew what this was from. The air mask felt claustrophobic, but I had no choice but to wear it in a city where the air pollution has reached critical levels.
Running along the Yangtze I saw a man, a river guardian scooping scraps of garbage out of the river with a sieve-like contraption attached to a long wooden pole. The Yangtze river has become horribly polluted, but thanks to committed river guardians and good policy by the central government, the river and air is getting cleaner.
Cairo: A nation built on water
In Egypt the city of Cairo embraced me, and everywhere I went I was welcomed warmly. The legendary Nile has sustained life for millennia. Egypt was the first nation on earth to manage and tame water. But the country is on the verge of an extreme water crisis.
The Nile is an international river that supports more than 450 million people across nine countries, and that number is set to double in the next 25 years. The Nile river is under severe strain, and will not be able to sustain that volume of demand unless all 9 countries get better at water management. The lesson of the Nile is the lesson of cooperation. We need to work together to solve this water crisis.
London: There is life after death
In London ― a city I’ve been in love with for as long as I can remember ― I felt enlivened and energized. I was looking forward to the last kilometers of a 1,688-kilometer journey for water.
Close on 70 years ago the tidal Thames was declared “biologically dead.” Once a thriving ecosystem teeming with freshwater and seawater fish, as well as birds and seals, in 1950 the Thames was doomed. In the last decade and a half the waterway has been to hell and back, but the river was brought back from the dead. In recent decades a massive effort was launched to bring the Thames back to life.
My message to you
I’m just an ordinary person with a purpose who’s crazy enough to try do something about the water crisis. I want to ensure that by 2030 we’ll all have safe, affordable drinking water. I’m hoping that after reading about this epic quest I’m on, you’ll join me and become a water hero.
Clean, safe, accessible water for all is the most pressing issue our world faces today. It is the United Nation’s Global Goal 6. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation affect people’s livelihoods, food security, choices and futures. It affects the job market, our economies as well as our common safety and stability.
But most of us take water for granted.The biggest ratio of water we use is indirect or “invisible.” It is consumed in the making of products and utilities ― the T-shirts we buy, the fuel we use, the coffee we drink, the cars we drive, and the meat we eat. Most everything we use and consume every day is made using water.
Becoming a Water Hero
If you’re ready to step up and be a water hero, here are some resources for you to get going on your own epic journey.
Firstly, ensure that you and everyone in your household are educated about the water crisis, and know your water footprint.
Finally, if you have influence in government please take the water crisis seriously by integrating SDG6 into your policy framework.