‘We have no time to waste,’ Water Activist Urges Urgent Action to Preserve Water Resources

By Fredrick Mugira

Water advocate, ultra-marathon runner, and businesswoman Mina Guli has been running in various African countries since mid-June as part of the African leg of the RUN BLUE Campaign, which will see her completing 200 marathons around the world by March next year.

Australian-born Guli is the CEO of Thirst Foundation, a non-profit organisation delivering ground-breaking action to protect the world’s freshwater resources.

Mina Guli, founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation, in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, during the Run Blue campaign to raise awareness, create urgency, and drive action on the water. Photo by Xavier Briel

The RUN BLUE campaign aims to raise awareness, demonstrate the urgency of the water problem we are facing, and drive commitments to concrete action on the water by governments, companies, and organisations worldwide in advance of the UN-Water Conference in March 2023.

The campaign started on March 22, 2022 (World Water Day) in Australia, and Guli has completed the Central Asia stage, where she ran 14 marathons in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

For three months, Guli has run marathons across several countries in Africa. The Africa leg of the RUN BLUE campaign will end in Cape Town, at the end of this month, before moving on to Turkey, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the United States, where it will finish on the steps of the United Nations in New York at the opening of the UN Summit on Water.

Along her routes, she is joined by thousands of people and meets government officials and water experts.

Mina Guli, founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation, running marathon number 48 with local Samburu warriors in Africa during the Run Blue campaign to raise awareness, create urgency, and drive action on water. This photo was taken at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, Samburu County, Kenya. Photo by Xavier Briel

She runs through communities and areas most affected by the water crisis. She meets people, companies, water experts, and government officials, sharing their stories and lifting their voices, putting water onto the global agenda, and driving commitments to concrete action by companies and governments in Africa and around the world.

Mina shared her thoughts with Fredrick Mugira about how the Africa leg of the RUN BLUE campaign has been so far.

Question: You’ve been traveling across Africa since mid-June. What’s your impression of the countries and communities you have visited so far?

Answer: A couple of things. The first one is the people and communities that we’ve met so far have been incredibly welcoming and keen to share their stories about water and not only with us but with the world. And I think this is emblematic of the importance of giving voice to the voiceless, raising the voices of people in these local communities, and giving them an opportunity to be held on the global stage.

I think too often, leaders in positions of power don’t make decisions when it comes to water about things they don’t truly understand. One of the Indigenous leaders in Australia said to me decisions would be better if leaders could understand that things are different on the land. The other thing is that I’ve seen huge water problems in these countries; in many cases, these problems are in places where the damage is irreversible.

In many of the places we’ve been in Africa, the damage is not irreversible. Or the slide downwards is not so bad that it can’t be arrested. And I think this is a real opportunity for Africa, particularly for the leaders in the communities here, to step up and say, we can change this; we can have a better world with enough water for everyone forever.

Mina Guli, founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation, running marathon number 49 in Africa during the Run Blue campaign to raise awareness, create urgency and drive action on water. This photo was taken: Samburu County, Kenya. Photo by Xavier Briel

Question: How do the water challenges of Africa differ from those in the other countries you’ve traveled to?

Answer: One thing that impresses me is how the water challenges in Africa are similar to many of the countries I’ve been in so far. Whether it is some of the threats to the Okavango Delta and, you know, wetlands worldwide are disappearing three times faster than our forests. The UN just released a report which I know you guys have looked at. And they say in the last 300 years, over 80% of the world’s wetlands have been lost.

So wetlands are an important issue for Africa and the world. Again, access to clean water and sanitation is an issue for Africa, but equally for other parts of the world. When we were in Central Asia, we saw the water challenges of communities there, which are very similar to those faced here in Africa. So I think it’s tempting for us to look at water as a completely local issue. But the reality is that there are global similarities right around the world.

Question: Can you provide a quick overview of the projects and initiatives you’ve visited so far?

Answer: We’ve been fortunate to visit various projects and see multiple initiatives. So maybe rather than go through them individually, I’ll categorize them.

The first one is in clean water and sanitation. So we’ve seen a couple of solutions to scaling up clean water and sanitation services in rural communities across Africa. And these have just been eye-opening to see the innovation on the ground to try to solve these problems at scale. So I think the key is at scale. And I believe also witnessing the innovative solutions to some of the problems that have beset the water and sanitation sector, for example, wells that have been dug and abandoned and no longer work, and some of the solutions that are being implemented to try to solve that by organizations like Waterfall or looking at innovative financing mechanisms by organizations like Water.org. Oh, and also, Project Maji, which is doing innovative work around providing clean water and sanitation at scale.

Okay, the second category is forestry, reforestation, and protecting our watersheds. We spent some time with WWF, Eliud Kipchoge and his foundation in Kenya, and similar kinds of reforestation initiatives in the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve in Malawi, where they’re having huge issues with illegal forestry.

Mina Guli, founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation, running marathon number 50 in Africa during the Run Blue campaign to raise awareness, create urgency and drive action on water. This photo was taken in Kaptagat, Uasin Gishu County, in the southwestern part of Kenya. Photo by Xavier Briel

We’ve also seen some of the work that some companies do in agriculture. It is interesting to see their strategies to reduce water consumption, such as moving towards drip irrigation or minimizing seepage in open channels. It’s interesting to see these kinds of initiatives being implemented here in Africa and rolled out. That’s just some examples, not a complete list.

Question: How would you describe the people of Africa?

Answer: Oh, wow. Words cannot describe how friendly and amazing people across Africa have been, how welcoming, how supportive, and how enthusiastic, from people that have come to run with us to people that have shared their stories with us to people who have encouraged me and shouted and supported me along the run rounds. Just wow. Like, Yeah, wow, I’m blown away. Your continent is amazing.

Small and large-scale farming on the banks of the Malewa River. The Malewa River rises in the western slopes of the Aberdare Range in Kenya and flows south and west into Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley.
This photo was taken in The Malewa River, Kenya. Photo by Xavier Briel

You know, we spent the last few days in the Okavango Delta. And if there’s one place that makes you realize water’s enormity, the importance, and significance, and how much life truly depends on healthy systems and ecosystems, it’s the Okavango Delta. It’s a truly incredible, remarkable place, teeming with life but massively under threat. And when we went there, the local guides were telling us that the water had dropped significantly, that places where they would use to pole at three meters deep at this time of year, it’s less than 50 centimeters deep. So I think we can’t underestimate the significance of these challenges, the urgency of the action that needs to be taken, and the importance of organizations like the United Nations and countries and leaders in companies stepping up and saying water needs to be a priority for action.

We need to act now, and we need to get the world to Run Blue!

This story was first published on Water Journalists Africa

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