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Meet Mina Guli, the Australian woman running for water

Mina Guli has been a lawyer, named the Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum in 2010 and now, as the CEO and founder of not-for-profit Thirst, she is on a mission to educate and inform the next generation about the global water crisis.

The Australian Water Association sat down with Guli to learn more.

Australian Water Association (AWA): What is the scale of the global water crisis?

Mina Guli: The more I learn about the water crisis, the more I realise how urgently something needs to be done. Experts predict that by 2030, there will be a 40% greater demand for water than the supply of water available.

That number is astronomical. The World Economic Forum rated water as the number one risk to global society. When they consider all the risks in the world, to rank water as number one indicates the enormousness and severity of the task that's in front of us. Water goes into everything we use, buy and consume every single day. We don't just need it to live – we need it to live the way that we want to live.

AWA: Who is most affected by the global water crisis right now?

Guli: I think we feel like a crisis that's this big is not really going to affect us if we live in an urban area – we turn on the tap and water comes out.

But the water crises can affect us in a variety of ways. It can affect our ability to get access to drinking water. In São Paulo, for example, there have been domestic water restrictions such that there are days where you can't access water and people go to each other’s houses in order to have showers. It can affect industries where water allocation is limited, like factories in India that have had to figure out new ways to produce their products due to water restrictions.

Water affects our ability to produce power. Water affects the ability to produce all the things that we use and buy and consume every day. It is literally in everything. When I calculate how much water went into the clothes that I'm wearing today, the computer I'm using – all of those things took more water to produce than all of the water I've drunk in my life so far.

AWA: What is Thirst doing to raise awareness about water consumption? What are some of the initiatives that you're directing?

Guli: We have three main initiatives. The first is education. Very early on we conducted research and found that more than 80% of millennials surveyed didn’t know of or fully understand the severity of the water crisis. But once we informed them, their behaviour changed and, more importantly, the information was contagious in that they told others. Last year we had 400,000 kids graduate from our education program, which makes us very proud and excited. We launched this initiative in 2012, and we predict in 2017 that we'll reach almost 1 million kids.

The second program we run is an innovation competition. Last year we had 150,000 submissions; this year we forecast 400,000. Kids are tasked to come up with a technology-based solution to a water problem they see around them.

Those two are our grassroots, community-based projects. The third project that we do is our global project. It's what we call Run for Water. Last year, I ran the equivalent of 40 marathons across seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks to symbolise the 40% difference between demand and supply for water. This year, I'm going to run a marathon a day for six weeks along six rivers on six continents to support the sixth Sustainable Development Goal, which is Ensure Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All. It’s to raise awareness, but this time we’re also collaborating with companies to drive better water efficiency – or 'water fitness’ – through their supply chains.

Thirst CEO Mina Guli.

AWA: Why did Thirst choose Asia as its area of focus?

Guli: I think that the Asian region has severe water security concerns, some of which will be in the most volatile regions. For example, in China, there are huge water scarcity issues in the northern part of the country, but in the southern part they have massive water pollution issues.

I'm particularly interested in issues around water scarcity and water availability. When you see forecasts of water scarcity over the next 10 to 40 years, there are huge bands of red growing right around the middle of the world. Asia is one of the places that is going to be very badly hit, along with the Middle East and North Africa.

AWA: How do you tailor your approach to work in different communities?

Guli: In order to start something global, you first need to start something local.

Wherever you are, you need to have local experts on the ground who can help, support and guide you to ensure that the way in which you operate is adjusted to fit the culture and perspective of the people living in that community.

I think the most important thing to do is to be sensitive to their needs and demands.

Update: January 2018

After running 40 marathons across seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks in 2016, and completing 40 marathons in 40 days in 2017, Guli's next goal was to complete 100 marathons in 100 days. She began with the New York Marathon on 4 November, 2018 and completed 60 marathons before being thrown off course by a fractured femur on 5 January, 2019.

Guli has "passed the baton" to her supporters, who are completing marathons in her stead.

First published as 'A thirsty world' in Current magazine May 2017.