After Remi Camus ended his six-month-long, 4,400-km swim along the Mekong River in Viet Nam’s Tien Giang Province last year, he returned six months later to seek partners for his initiative to collect rubbish dumped in the world’s 10th-longest river.
While in HCM City, the 30-year-old former restaurant manager attended the VietWater 2014 exhibition, looking for “someone crazy like me” who would support his initiative to collect plastic and aluminum cans in the river.
In addition to attending conferences, Remi gave interviews to the media and showed videos of images taken during his long journey to students at local schools and universities.
“Asia is beautiful and people are nice, but the river is so dirty. It would be good for the quality of water when we remove all of the plastic items and aluminum cans from the river,” he told Viet Nam News before giving a lecture to Vietnamese students at the American International School.
If Camus’s initiative gets off the ground, he plans to pay locals for the rubbish they collect from the river and then sell it to recyclers.
He has already lined up some sponsors for his nonprofit foundation Expedition Terre Inconnue, whose aim is “to provide clean and safe drinking water to every person on earth”.
Camus wants to start in Viet Nam and then expand the clean-up effort to other countries upstream on the Mekong.
“I had heard a lot about the Mekong before my journey, but I was not aware that the problem was so serious,” he said.
“During my trip, I thought a lot about the environment, the people, the culture and the tradition of people living near the river. Throwing rubbish in the river has become a habit for them.”
Many locals, he said, throw all kinds of items into the river, including shoes, helmets, and plastic bags and bottles.
Due to the polluted river water, when Remi arrived in Cambodia, his leg had become swollen, three times larger than normal, and his skin was covered with a bad rash and had begun to peel off. After seeking medical help in Phnom Penh, he was able to resume his trip.
“It’s funny because people in every country along the Mekong blame each other. The Laotians blame the Chinese and the Burmese for the pollution, saying they’ll throw anything in the river,” Camus said.
“When I asked Cambodians, they blamed the Laotians, Thais and Chinese. When I asked Vietnamese, they blamed all of them.”
The young environmentalist said France had made similar mistakes 50 years ago but then developed new environmental policies.
As he travelled along the river from his starting point in Tibet in late 2013, Camus said he urged residents to learn about the importance of protecting water sources.
At each stop, he gave locals the same “lecture”, telling them their lives depended on the river for fishing, transport, drinking and cooking.
“I asked them what they would do if the river was polluted. But many of them couldn’t understand me” because of language barriers, he said.
When asked why he chose Viet Nam for his environmental clean-up project, the Frenchman said Viet Nam “gets all of the sh—” released from other countries from upstream.
Viet Nam is the last country where the Mekong flows, and all the rubbish comes down from the countries through which the river flows from China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam.
Serious pollution is limiting access to clean water for millions of people, especially the poor, Camus said.
“I think the next war in the world won’t be a war for territories or war for petrol. It will be a war for water. The rich people can access water and the poor will die.”
He said he was worried that many people in Asia often ignored the long-term consequences of their actions. “They seem to care only for the present, not tomorrow.”
From US to Australia
Camus’s environmental awareness was first sparked by a trek of 5,400km under the scorching sun that he took from Melbourne to Darwin, Australia from October 2011 to March 2012.
Due to a lack of water, he had to drink his own urine and the blood of kangaroos that had been killed on the road, as well as eat grass.
“You would do the same if you were in my situation. I had no choice. If the lack of water affected me during my journey, then think about the number of people who lack clean water all the time! This is when I decided to do something about access to clean drinking water,” he told Viet Nam News.
Four years prior to his Australian trek, he had visited Thailand, Laos and Malaysia, and had liked the people who lived along the Mekong.
“I chose to swim in the river (with a small riverboard) to not only highlight the pollution but also the number of dams. At the upstream portion of the Mekong River, I talked with local residents about the dam situation. I saw no running water. People living near the river in China had no electricity and no water. For 50-60 kilometres, I didn’t see anyone,” he said.
His Australian journey, he said, was inspired by a book written by a French-American who trekked 24,000km from Alaska to Terra Del Fuego in one year, raising funds for charity during a three-month period.
Camus, who has a diploma in hospitality management, has worked as a manager of several different restaurants, including one in Geneva, Switzerland, that was his last regular job.
Nguyen Thanh Tuan, who hosted Camus during his stay in HCM City, said he wanted to help him because of the Frenchman’s desire to protect the Mekong.
“His adventure on the Mekong was unique. I hope his project to collect rubbish in the river will receive support,” Tuan said