Swimmer calls attention to Mekong's plight

Update: May, 11/2014 - 17:18

Saving water: Remi Camus (third from left) celebrates his accomplishment of conquering the 4,400km length of Mekong River with the local people. His expedition received funding of about 20,000 euros for preparation as well as purchasing devices to purify water. — Photo courtesy of Remi Camus

by Luong Thu Huong

French adventurer Remi Camus has just completed his six-month riverboarding trip of the Mekong River, which originates in Chinese Tibet and runs through China proper, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Viet Nam.

Unlike other adventurers who tend to take risky expeditions for exploration or for drawing public attention, 28-year-old Camus wanted to raise awareness about the crucial importance of preserving the 4,400-kilometre-long Mekong River, which is indispensable for the society and economy of the six countries located in its basin.

Working as the manager of a restaurant near Geneva, Switzerland, Camus came up with the idea of travelling at the end of 2010, after reading about a man running across America. He wondered why more similar expeditions with a humane purpose were not being organized.

A year later, Camus implemented his idea of running solo across Australia to raise money for children suffering from Lowe syndrome. The severe weather and the lack of water in the vast desert made him study the issue of fresh water supplies for his future expeditions.

"I started to think that if I had a problem finding drinking water in the desert during my run, which would take 100 days to cover 5,400km, some people have to deal with the issue all their lives. This is how I started thinking about the Mekong.

"Then I came in Asia with my ex-girlfriend in 2010, visiting Thailand, Lao and Malaysia, and we spent time along the Mekong river. I thought it would be interesting to organise an expedition along the Mekong. I love sports, particularly swimming, so I decided to swim in the river from its source to the sea," Camus says.

In preparation for the six-month journey which started on October 8 last year, Camus practiced hard by running for one hour from 6am to 7am, in addition to swimming for 10km and exercising for another hour in the park every day.

His only companion during this lonely quest was a specially designed boat-size board and a 30-kilogram bag which had all the necessities.

His expedition, however, was a constant battle against a series of challenging and unpleasant experiences right from its start, which were beyond his control.

In those parts of the Mekong River which flow through China, Camus had to deal with currents flowing with speeds up to 36 kilometres per hour. These forced him to swim only 45 to 50km a day. As a solo traveller, he had to stop to observe his surroundings carefully whenever he heard loud noises, in case they were of waterfalls and rapids, to avoid danger. However, in those parts where there were many reservoirs and dams being built and which had slow-moving currents, Camus could swim only 25km a day.

At first, he expected his expedition to take only four months. Though he had prepared for all the visas of the countries he would be passing, he got stuck in Laos where the authorities detained him for more than one month, as they suspected him to be a spy who was trying to enter the country illegally.

While the upstream water was so clean and free of pollution that he could drink it and saw fish swimming in it, the poor quality of the downstream water caused health issues for him.

Being submerged in the water for a long time, Camus did not notice the change in the water quality until he got rashes all over his legs. This forced him to get a medical checkup in Viet Nam after the expedition.

"The Mekong River is clean in China, but it's getting worse and worse as they build dams on the river, and the people keep dumping waste in the river, creating garbage dams. As I swam downstream, the pollution levels started to increase. It's bad when you reach Phnom Penh, as the number of people close to the Mekong delta increases," he says.

Camus adds that there were two types of pollution in the river: dumping of garbage such as plastic bags or bottles by the people, which he called visual pollution; and heavy metal pollution caused mostly by factories along the river. "I can't do anything about this as the governments are supposed to change it," he says.

His expedition drew the attention of curious local people along the river. He took the opportunity to spread information about the importance of drinking safe water and preserving the river quality, with the help of documents he had brought.

Many people living on the banks of the Mekong do not have access to the internet or mass media. Camus used his laptop to show them the pictures of garbage being dumped into the river in other places so that they could see the pollution level and understand what actions should be taken.

He says if he could repeat his journey, he would take the pictures of rivers in France to show how the French people have tried to keep their environment clean. "We made mistakes before, and I don't want you to make the same. If you could have our knowledge about it and skip this part, it would be perfect," he says.

In addition, he has partnered with seven schools in France where he is teaching students about saving the environment, especially fresh water.

Camus's 4,400-kilometre expedition received funding of about 20,000 euros for the preparation and for purchasing devices to purify water. He plans to write a book about this journey and make a documentary, so that it aids schools.

Camus will return to Ho Chi Minh City for a nationwide education programme in October. He also plans to travel to different schools and universities to discuss with students how to conserve water.

He is more than satisfied with his journey's achievements, which are beyond his expectations.

"I have journalists talking about the story; I had a few phone calls asking for TV interviews in Asia and France. So many people are interested in this journey. It's the perfect way to raise awareness about the lack of safe drinking water," he says.

"I want my idea to be famous. I want people start caring about water. I don't care about becoming famous. The most important is the message that I tried to deliver: save water!" — VNS