Sustain the water cycle
2011-12-14 .. By Doug Meigs (HK Edition)
Two cyclists rode from England to Hong Kong, raising money and awareness for more than 2 billion people who lack clean freshwater and sanitation worldwide. Their adventure challenged conventional notions of philanthropy, crossing national boundaries and local water issues. Doug Meigs reports.
The water cyclists arrived at dusk. They crossed the Shenzhen border, pedaled through green mountains of the New Territories and descended into Kowloon's congested nocturnal glow. Hong Kong city lights signaled the end of an epic journey that began in Newbury, a town in southern England.
On the morning of Nov 15, cyclists Micheil Gordon, 25 and Jon Lee, 23, re-saddled their bicycles for the symbolic final leg of their odyssey to raise money and awareness for WaterAid. The duo navigated bustling Kowloon traffic on bicycles laden with gear. A jubilant crowd of managers, publicists and employees from their corporate sponsor LANXESS (a multinational chemicals conglomerate with an office in Hong Kong) cheered the cyclists across a finish line setup inside the Kowloon Cricket Club.
After nearly nine months covering a distance of 10,000 miles, Gordon and Lee had completed their mission to Hong Kong. They had cycled across 16 countries and raised 18,520.43 (roughly HK$230,000) for WaterAid. They estimated that the funds would assist 1,500 people to obtain a lifetime of safe drinking water and sanitation.
More than 2 billion people worldwide lack clean drinking water and sanitation, according to WaterAid.
The NGO works with communities and national governments to provide facilities and policy frameworks for sustainable fresh water supplies in some of the world's most disadvantaged areas. Gordon and Lee became acquainted with the role of water in human social and economic mobility during an environmental science course at the University of Brighton, where they graduated in 2009.
"If you're always confined by water, restricted by a 20-mile walk to get water for your family, or if it makes you ill, then it restricts everything you do," Gordon said. "It restricts business, it restricts education," Lee added. "Young girls sent to collect water don't get to go to school. Basically without water, there's really no chance of moving forward," Gordon continued.
In Turkmenistan, they stopped to ask directions to a public toilet. "A man points to the river," Lee said. "The same river where one guy is already going to the toilet, another guy is washing his food, and still another guy is having a drink out of, with a dead dog floating past."
They tried to drink bottled water when it was available. Sometimes they had little choice. Gordon once suffered severe sunstroke and nearly lost consciousness. Lee stopped the passing traffic seeking water. "They would hand us an old bottle filled with river water. That is what they drank," he said.
In Uzbekistan, while riding through an arid desert, they encountered cotton fields irrigated by the rivers feeding the Aral Sea. "It would be green trees and cotton. Then you would cross a line, and it would literally be all dust, sand, dessert dry nothing," said Gordon. He was aware that the lush landscape resulted from the Aral Sea disaster a few hundred kilometers to the south, a textbook environmental catastrophe caused in the 1960s when the former Soviet Union diverted water to new farms in arid lands. Once one of the world's largest inland seas, the Aral Sea is now one tenth its former size, with ecosystems and fishing economies devastated.
Each of the cyclists carried nearly 18 liters of water on his bike, enough water for two days. In the remote deserts of Xinjiang and Qinghai, they rationed supplies. "Some of the places that we went through were just so dry that we wouldn't sweat," Gordon said. "There would not be a drop of water on us. And we're drinking 9 liters of water a day and not going to the toilet. That's a very strange feeling. The water just disappeared."