A Q&A with water advocate and ultramarathon runner, Mina Guli
Empowering people to protect our water sources is a vital quest that unites Xylem Watermark and Mina Guli, Founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation. In the lead-up to the first global United Nations (UN) water conference in almost 50 years on World Water Day, 22 March 2023, Mina did something extraordinary. She arrived in New York after completing 200 marathons around the world. During her journey, Mina met the people and communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. She shared her first-hand perspective on how watersheds suffer from climate change and human activity while advocating for systemic change to solve water.
Austin Alexander, Xylem's Vice President, Sustainability and Social Impact, recently spoke to Mina about the importance of pushing water to the top of the global agenda and how creative collaboration is needed to address the global water crisis.
Drought, flooding, and water pollution are the main symptoms of our warming world, but water is rarely at the top of the agenda. Your project, Run Blue, was such an inspiring way to create urgency. What prompted you to take on such an incredible project?
I wanted to go to the front lines of the water crisis and take the world out to see it too. Not only to see it but to understand the nature, extent, and urgency of this problem. Water is everything, but we treat it as if it is nothing.
Honestly, I was fed up with being told that water is such a big, complicated issue that we can't do anything about it. I wanted to show that hard things are not impossible things.
“If we remain committed and approach problems with purpose, passion, and perseverance, we can achieve amazing things.”
During your journey, you saw first-hand some of the impact of this crisis on communities, both from scarcity and flooding. What stands out to you as being symptomatic of what we face?
Water doesn’t come from a tap; it comes from healthy ecosystems. I saw this in the Amazon, where you can see the water cycle in full flow and see it rising out of the trees. That transpiration creates clouds that get blown down south. Then you go to Sao Paulo to the favelas where drought was caused by deforestation thousands of miles away.
On an individual level, I also ran through some beautiful ecosystems and watched as people dumped rubbish directly into rivers and deltas. As societies, communities, and individuals, we need to get our heads around the fact that these rivers and waterways are incredibly important and valuable, and we need to treat them like that.
I saw many challenges to accessing water and sanitation services across places in Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia. But there was also an intellectual challenge as I ran through the United States and Europe with rivers at historic lows, so low that I could run through them.
We depend heavily on our rivers and waterways for transportation, for manufacturing. They are vital for our economies and societies.
Another striking moment was in Tajikistan when we traveled to a glacier to the source of the Amu Darya River - one of the biggest in Central Asia and responsible for providing water to hundreds of millions of people in the region. When you looked across this valley, you did not see ice and snow, just the marks of where the glaciers used to be.
Creative collaboration is a vital part of how we need to address the global water crisis. This is something we are trying to address with Xylem Watermark’s Watershed Challenge, which goes beyond country boundaries to look at impacts across ecosystems and water basins. What stories give you hope that we can solve this crisis?
Our water basins don't recognize the artificial boundaries that we've created as humans. They recognize their natural boundaries, and I think that's something that we need to remember and approach in an open, collaborative way. During Run Blue, it was easy to be depressed by the situation. Every day I saw the problem in horrid glory, technicolor details.
“But I also witnessed stories of hope and stories of collaboration where people were truly working together to create proper, meaningful solutions on the ground.”
In India, I saw collaborations between communities of farmers that created cooperatives where they work together and try to share information and better ways to access technology and knowledge. We met a factory owner in Türkiye who supplies cotton to top-end brands. He realized that he had a major challenge with not getting access to enough water and approached the brands for help. They connected him to world-class experts, and he now deploys regenerative cotton growing in his fields.
We are finding that it takes many partners working together to show what is possible by rethinking the status quo and leaning into technology to deliver more water sustainability. Are there any examples that stood out on your journey of communities being innovative in the face of crisis?
In Australia, I met cotton farmers in communities closely collaborating with researchers and innovators to invent new systems where, for instance, they can put robots into their irrigation channels to spot leaks.
When we talk about innovation, especially in the water space, we instantly think about technology. But most technology requires capital, most small-scale farmers or businesses people don't have access to that. So, we need to innovate more with technology, but we also require innovation in capital application to enable the distribution of that technology.
We also need to look at people’s behavior and the drivers behind it. Look at what Eliud Kipchoge, one of the greatest runners in history, has done in Kaptagat, Kenya. He saw how the forests in which he trains changed due to logging. Working in collaboration with the communities and local NGOs, he has created a whole ecosystem where they work to educate people, create alternative income sources, and plant thousands of trees. His approach might not be what we normally consider innovative from a technological perspective, but it shows the value of doing things differently, sharing knowledge, and sharing information.
You have spoken before about how clear, urgent action can have a lasting impact. What steps can the water industry and individuals take immediately to deliver meaningful results?
Our water, our responsibility. Each of us has choices to make every day. We can conserve a lot of water by taking shorter showers, thinking about the food we are consuming, and reducing waste. We also all have a vote – one that we cast for politicians and by how we spend our money. Making deliberate decisions to reward those taking positive action is a meaningful way to create change.
The water community has been beset by silo thinking on the different aspects of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. You can't get clean water and sanitation to local communities without protecting and preserving the ecosystems that provide that water. We can't have integrated water resources management without going beyond traditional boundaries.
We need to create awareness of the urgency and scale of the problem. Rivers are drying up, but nothing is happening. The water industry also needs to get better at listening to local communities, to the people on the front lines of this, and to understand the nature of the problems that they're facing. It is only by working together that we can make a real, meaningful impact.
Mina Guli is the founder and CEO of Thirst Foundation. Following a successful 15-year career in law, finance, and climate change, in 2012, Mina established Thirst Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on raising awareness, creating urgency, and driving action on water through large-scale, international, out-of-the-box campaigns. Mina, who is from Melbourne, Australia, has built a community of water advocates in 202 countries and territories through taking on global expedition. In March 2023, Mina completed 200 Marathons in one year as part of the #RunBlue expedition, running on the frontlines of the global water crisis in 32 different countries and finishing her 200th marathon on the steps of the UN at the start of the UN 2023 Water Conference.
Austin Alexander is Vice President, Sustainability and Social Impact at Xylem. In this role, she is responsible for Xylem’s global sustainability programs, ESG reporting, social impact, and client sustainability programs. This includes working towards Xylem Sustainability goals and commitments, which incorporate efforts to Build a Sustainable Company, Empower Communities and Serve Customers. Austin joined Xylem in 2013 and has had several roles including customer service, engineering, sales, and investor relations function. Throughout her tenure, she has been involved in volunteering and leading events through Xylem’s Watermark program.