Frenchman Remi Camus swims the river end to end, battling pollution the whole way
Six months after Frenchman Remi Camus ended his six-month, 4,400-kilometre swim down the Mekong River in Vietnam’s Tien Giang province last year, he has returned to seek partners for his initiative to collect rubbish dumped in the world’s 10th-longest river.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, the 30-year-old former restaurant manager attended the VietWater exhibition, looking for “someone crazy like me” who would support his initiative to collect pieces of plastic and aluminium cans in the river.
Remi also showed students at local schools and universities pictures he’d taken during his long journey. “Asia is beautiful and people are nice, but the river is so dirty!” he says before giving a lecture at the American International School.
If Camus’ initiative gets off the ground, he plans to pay locals for the rubbish they collect and sell it to recyclers. He’s already lined up some sponsors for his non-profit foundation, Expedition Terre Inconnue, whose aim is “to provide clean and safe drinking water to every person on earth”.
Camus wants to start in Vietnam and then expand the clean-up effort to countries upstream. “I had heard a lot about the Mekong before my journey, but I was not aware that the problem was so serious,” he says.
“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.”
Due to the polluted river water, when Camus arrived in Cambodia, his leg had swollen three times normal size and his skin was covered with a bad rash. He had to seek medical help in Phnom Penh before resuming his trip.
“It’s funny because people in every country along the Mekong blame each other. The Lao blame the Chinese and the Burmese for the pollution, saying ‘They’ll throw anything in the river.’ “When I asked Cambodians, they blamed the Lao, Thais and Chinese. When I ask Vietnamese, they blame all of them.”
Camus says France had made similar mistakes 50 years ago, but then developed more environmentally friendly policies.
As he travelled along the river from his starting point in Tibet in late 2013, Camus urged residents to recognise the importance of protecting water sources. At each stop he gave the same “lecture”, telling them their lives depended on the river for fishing, transport, drinking and cooking. “But many of them couldn’t understand me” because of language barrier.
Asked why he chose Vietnam for his clean-up project, the Frenchman says Vietnam “gets all the sh**” released upstream in China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
Serious pollution is limiting access to clean water for millions of people, especially the poor, Camus says. “I think the next war in the world won’t be a war for territory or for petrol. It will be a war for water. The rich people will be able to access water and the poor will die.”
He’s worried that many people in Asia often ignore the long-term consequences of their actions. “They seem to care only for the present, not tomorrow.”
Camus’ environmental awareness was sparked by a 5,400km trek under the scorching sun from Melbourne to Darwin in Australia from October 2011 to March 2012. The shortage of water meant he had to drink his own urine and the blood of kangaroos he found killed on the road, and also eat grass.
“If the lack of water affected me like that on my journey, think about the number of people who never have clean water! That was when I decided to do something about access to clean drinking water.”
Four years before the Australian trek he visited Thailand, Laos and Malaysia and had come to like the people living along the Mekong. “I chose to swim down the river [using a small flotation board] to highlight not only the pollution but also the number of dams.
“Upstream I talked to 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 or 60 kilometres I didn’t see anyone.”
Nguyen Thanh Tuan, who hosted Camus during his stay in Ho Chi Minh City, says he wants 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 will receive support.”