murky waters

I wouldn’t enter the sea off Mumbai – it’s too dirty, says champion who has swum in all five oceans

United Nations Patron of the Ocean Lewis Pugh, who assisted in a clean-up initiative, says he has never seen so much litter on a beach.

In October, two exasperated residents of Versova in northwestern Mumbai decided that they were done with waiting for authorities to do something about the polluted beach near their home and organised fellow citizens to clean it up. The effort by Afroz Shah and Harbansh Mathur began at a small scale, but grew rapidly. Volunteers have come, weekend after weekend, to fight back the waves of plastic that kept washing up from the nearby Malad creek to Versova Beach, one of the smaller ones of the city.

Now, 43 weeks later, the movement of the Versova Resident Volunteers is still going strong. It might even be world’s longest lasting beach cleanup.

So says swimmer Lewis Pugh, who was in Mumbai over the weekend to lend a hand to their efforts. Pugh, the first person to have swum long-distance in all five oceans, is also the United Nations Patron of the Oceans. In this capacity, he advocates the health of marine ecosystems. One aspect of this is pollution, which he saw aplenty at Versova.

As an endurance swimmer, Pugh has conquered difficult aquatic conditions. He is the first person to have swum above the Arctic Circle in an attempt to raise awareness about melting ice caps. He has also swum in the Antarctic Ocean and in a melted Himalayan glacier.

But even with these impressive credentials, Pugh, in an interview to Scroll.in, said he would balk at taking a dip in the heavily polluted Arabian Sea off the shore of Mumbai.

Edited excerpts of the interview:

You have had a hectic two days cleaning Versova beach. What do you think of it?
It’s been hugely inspiring. India is a country of contrasts. I spent much of my life in the world’s most beautiful places in the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Himalayas, which are the last wilderness areas on the earth. I spend most of my time in these areas and Mumbai is hugely different.

What I’ve seen on the one hand has been so disgusting. I have never in my life seen so much litter on a beach, on any beach in the whole world. I have never gone down to a beach and seen lots of children and women defecating early in the morning.

And yet on the other side, I’ve never seen so much excitement, so much determination. It’s hugely inspiring that people have come together and said, "We are going to clean this beach". For most people it would be totally overwhelming. They see the amount of plastic coming in every day and they think, “How can we solve it?” The spirit of the people here is really exceptional.

How did you get in touch with the Versova Resident Volunteers?
Through Twitter. On World Environment Day I saw a picture of Versova beach and I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve never seen pollution like this ever. I started following Afroz Shah on Twitter and I realised that this must be the biggest beach cleanup in history.

The biggest cleanups took place after wars. So we’re talking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the bombing of London during the Second World War, the siege of Stalingrad, Berlin. Then obviously after natural disasters – Haiti, the tsunami. But in terms of beach cleanups, I’ve never seen one that has gone on week after week – now for 43 weeks. Yesterday, there were certainly over 500 people. And the quantity of litter being picked up! I saw 20 big trucks just leaving. That’s huge.

What I hope is that this lights a flame in Asia – across the entire the subcontinent and the whole of Southeast Asia – so that communities look at their beaches and say, “We can also do this.”

Beaches are the points at which ocean and land interact, where people can get a glimpse of the debris in the seas. As a deep-sea swimmer, what do beaches mean to you?
What you see being washed up onto the beaches is a tiny fraction of what is going into the ocean. That’s what’s so frightening. I spend a lot of my time down in Antarctica, where there are big icebergs. And icebergs are 10% above the water and 90% below. What you see above the water is far less frightening than what you see below. It’s the same with this pollution. What is below the water is far more frightening than what is washed up onto the shores. It’s the sheer quantity of it.

What is the most polluted ocean you have swum in?
I would not swim here. The other day, I spoke to a fisherman who said that 20 years ago, he used to go across to the mangrove, dive into the sea, pick fruit and eat it. I haven’t seen one person get into the water here. The city has 20 million people and I haven’t seen one person swim. And let me tell you that India has some of the greatest long-distance swimmers in history. This country has produced incredible ocean swimmers. I haven’t seen anybody swimming in this water.

Maybe they are swimming down the coastline, but I certainly would not swim here. I think you’re taking your life into your hands.

Even more than, say, swimming in freezing temperatures?
That’s also dangerous, but that’s a risk I can manage. I can stay in the water for a certain period of time. I can get out and I can reheat myself. If you dive in that creek there, you are going to have water come into your mouth with very high levels of pollution and bacteria. I wouldn’t do it.

I dream about the day when I can come to Mumbai and swim along Versova beach. I think that if we can get local communities – business, government, the media – all working together, that day will come.

If you take one problem and multiply it by 1.3 billion people, it’s unsolvable. But if you take a problem and divide it by 1.3 billion people, it’s solvable. That’s my message to India, that everybody has to take personal responsibility for the oceans.

This is also a question of inter-generational justice, that we are living our lives in such a way that our children and grandchildren are inheriting a world that is not sustainable. There is something deeply unjust about that. We need to take time to pause and think about it.

Inter-generational justice is a concept we do not see very much of...
Perhaps, but when I looked at that beach, who was cleaning that beach? Mothers. Why were they doing it? Why were they not with their children today? Because they are there for their children. You don’t have to explain to those mothers from that fishing community about inter-generational justice. They grew up 20 years ago when the beach was sandy. They have seen the beach change and want to take it back to what it was.

We have got to start these cleanups on every beach, starting here in Mumbai, and then moving around the whole coastline in India. It has to happen.

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