At a bend in the Yangtze River, a single fishing boat rocks back and forth across the water for hours on end. On it is Li Wei, holding a worn-out bamboo scooper. But he’s not looking for fish – Li Wei spends ten hours a day searching for trash and removing it by hand. He calls himself the River Guardian, and dreams of a river his grandchildren can swim in and drink from.

Li Wei could be a folk hero, but he doesn’t look out of place in this scene. Out of place is Mina Guli – tall and sundried, her blond hair tied up and tucked into the back of a white cap, wearing Asics trainers and an anti-smog facemask. She’d stopped by to talk to Li, and to catch her breath.

But it’s getting dark, and she’s only on kilometer 830 of 1,688. She tightens her mask and keeps running.

Guli is a different kind of hero. More super than folk, the Australian athlete is the face and muscle behind the Six Rivers Run, part of the #run4water social media campaign for United Nations Global Goal 6: clean water for all. She’s running six of the world’s largest rivers – a distance equal to 40 marathons – in 40 days. Having completed the Amazon, Colorado and Murray Darling rivers, we find her in Shanghai, at the Huangpu sub-river of the Yangtze.

Guli, seated across the table, doesn’t look tired. She’s run a marathon every day for the past month but is somehow spilling over with energy. She orders three Mediterranean pesto salads for the table, soon to be followed by three more, along with several pizzas and dessert. This is a feast, she tells us. Guli’s arrival in Shanghai marks her first night back in a developed, international city, having spent the larger leg of her China journey trekking through wet countryside. “It’s nice to eat a meal with silverware,” she admits. Her eyes widen at the sight of fresh Italian food arriving on white plates. She’s animated when she tastes pesto, or asks a question, but especially when she talks about water.

Guli is the CEO of Thirst, a China-based nonprofit that educates people on worldwide water scarcity, conservation and sustainability. It might be a result of growing up in Australia, on a dry stretch of land supported by a few huge tanks of water. She remembers her mom telling her to bring a bucket with her into the shower each morning to collect the excess water as she got ready for school. It’s not hard to see how she grew into the global defender of water she is today. And when she tells us about the 42 kilometers she ran today, or the 42 kilometers the day before, she does it as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. “I need to fix these bandages, though,” she says, alluding to her blistered feet, now completely encased in canvas wraps.

Guli laughs that she actually always despised sports growing up, but that her life was changed forever in university when she was pushed into a swimming pool, damaging the plates in her back so badly that her doctors told her she’d never run again.

Instead, a superhero was born. Guli started to practice sports: first swimming, then biking, and finally running. One small victory led to the next – a successful lap in the pool became two laps, and a laborious 500-meter run became 1,000. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the taut, muscular athlete sitting before us now.

“I fell into climate change by accident,” she says. Despite having grown up in water-scarce Melbourne, saving the world’s water resources was never a long-term plan. Actually, it was more by chance that she took on the role. It wasn’t until she learned about the impact of invisible water that she felt compelled to do something. 

When we think of conserving water, we think of turning the tap off while brushing your teeth or choosing an eco-friendly showerhead. In reality, less than 5% of the world’s water consumption occurs at home. Massive amounts of water are used every day across all industries to create any product or service.

“The bulk of our water consumption is from the water that goes into the making of consumer products we use every day – coffee, chocolate, clothing, paper, the fruit we eat, the chair we sit on,” Guli explained in an interview with Eco-Business last year. “This is what’s called invisible water.”

Guli adds salad to her plate and sets her fork down. She leans across the table and tells us a statistic she keeps at the forefront of her brain: it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single t-shirt. It takes nearly 2,500 liters to raise, process, distribute and prepare the beef for a single 1/3-pound hamburger.

“Sometimes we feel small and incapable of accomplishing big change,” she says. “But I guess I’m an example that you don’t have to be anyone to be someone. Every single one of us is capable of changing the world.”

Invisible water is another reason why Thirst is based in Beijing, and why Guli has been tied to China for more than ten years now. The manufacturing center of the world has a unique responsibility to ensure that the amount of water it consumes doesn’t throw off the balance of clean water worldwide. If it takes 2,700 liters of water to make a t-shirt, knowing that China manufactures more than half of the entire world’s clothing might offer some degree of scale on the issue. And given the country’s negative international reputation in environmental policy, that statistic could be alarming.

Actually, China is playing smarter than we might think. The government has built 52 water quality monitoring stations along the Yangtze, and has implemented an environmental protection plan that forbids chemical industrial zones in regions near the river. The Three Gorges Dam, a controversial undertaking, is now a modern hydroelectric marvel that provides energy to millions of people who would otherwise be without.

The massive nature of China’s resources, functioning behind a central authority, gives the country a shockingly direct ability to rally behind a cause (that is, once it’s considered a priority). In the past this has resulted in heavy-handed legislature like the One-Child Policy, but today it’s more likely to be manifested in the shape of sweeping, full-scale reforms that range from international quotas promoting grassroots individual action like Li Wei’s.

As consumers who determine the output demands of China’s manufacturing industry, Guli says we also have a responsibility to care about how those demands are supplied. When it comes to water, she’s actually optimistic. She tells us that the Yangtze sturgeon, which had completely stopped breeding in its waters for years, was just shown to have resumed its migration pattern into the river to lay its eggs – a huge victory for the species, and evidence that we’re moving in the right direction. She’s seen China’s government take steps toward a sustainable future for its water resources, and her conversations with locals along the river have instilled her with a sense of hope.

Two days after our dinner, with a total of 1,082 kilometers under her belt, Guli flew to Egypt to run the Nile, and then to the English Cotswolds to run the Thames, the last two rivers on her list. On April 30, forty days and 1,688 kilometers from the start of her race, she completed her run.

“I was exhausted but inspired,” Guli says. “Running around the world, I met incredible people doing amazing things, and saw firsthand the ability of every single one of us to create change.

“For me, it’s about water and creating a future where there’s enough of it for everyone forever, but for others it’s about a better life for their kids. Regardless of what drives us, we’re united in wanting a better future and a better planet. And getting there is like my run – every step counts.”