Last week, Mina Guli was running across glaciers in Antartica. And just yesterday, she completed a seven-day run across the Simpson Desert. Set to run the equivalent of over 40 marathons in seven weeks, the former environmental lawyer, and CEO of water conservation charity Thirst, has also completed grueling runs through Spain’s Tabernian Desert, and the Arabian Desert in Jordan.
For Guli, 45, this challenge is about more than putting her name in the history books. It’s about raising awareness for her life’s passion: water scarcity.
Having worked in climate change policy for the World Bank, and on countless climate change projects, Guli launched educational charity Thirst in 2012. “Even though I’d grown up through 10 years of drought in Australia, I didn’t know that 95 per cent of the water I use every day is actually used outside the home,” she tells SBS. In fact, she discovered that having shorter showers is “not really what’s going to shift the needle on water.”
Her running campaign has meant Melbourne-born Guli has seen firsthand the devastating effects of the world’s water shortage. During her second desert run in Jordan, she struggled to top up her supply after running out of water. “Locals have been harvesting from the local environment – collecting it off big rocks or in small dams – we had one day where we went to well after well and there was no water." She also recalls meeting farmers in Spain at risk of losing their livelihood. "They were trying to grow crops and used to be able to use underground water to supplement water from rivers, but now that’s drying up.”
It’s when water starts to have an impact on people’s way of life, that Guli sees the biggest problem. “These people are worried about how they’re able to continue to provide sustenance and a living for their families,” she says. “Once you start to remove the income and revenue for farmers, you have a problem. Communities collapse and people move to the cities because they can’t work on the land anymore.”
And so Guli has set out to educate individuals and businesses about the real impact we're having on water supply. “Water goes into everything we use, buy and consume every day,” she says. “All the water in the clothes I am wearing today takes more water to produce than all of the water I’ve drunk in my whole lifetime.”
I’d grown up through 10 years of drought in Australia, I didn’t know that 95 per cent of the water I use every day is actually used outside the home.
It's not just the water that comes out of the kitchen tap that we need to be mindful of. Litres upon litres of water go into the production of nearly every item we consume. “From the paper you write on, that’s 11 litres of water; your leather shoes, that’s 16,000 litres of water; a pair of jeans takes 11,000 litres of water; or cotton t-shirts, 2,700 litres of water,” she explains.
The numbers are as dire as they sound, which is why Guli is urging people to act now. “In 15 years, there’ll be a 40 per cent greater demand for water than the supply available,” Guli explains. “The World Economic Forum rated water [shortage] is the number one risk to global society. It’s not terrorism; it’s water.”
While Guli is not calling for a complete halt on consumption, she says we can all make smarter choices. “We need to do things differently from the way generations did before us. We need to make sure we’re using water sustainable in the production of our materials,” she says.
She is urging consumers to take a pledge to help Thirst reach their goal of saving one billion litres of water. “By agreeing to make tea rather than coffee, you save the equivalent of five minutes in the shower,” she says. “Or committing to eat vegetarian for a meal, rather than meat, saves a significant amount of water.” Guli's hope is that people keep questioning the products they purchase and consume so, eventually, “we know that every product we buy is using water in a sustainable way. But that's not where we’re at right now.”
Until we get there, she will keep on running. “At least for me, it’s impetus to get out of bed every day, put on my running shoes and get out there and run a marathon.”
Up next, Guli will tackle the Karoo Desert in South Africa, the Atacame Desert in Chile, before finishing up in the Mojave Desert in the US.