A French man completed his swim down the Mekong River in Vietnam this month, after a 4,400 kilometer aquatic journey that began on the China-Tibet border.
Rémi Camus expressed concern to Thanh Nien over the many people he encountered who seemed to drink from a river they dumped waste into every day. He was also greatly dismayed by rampant dams construction in China that will leave downstream countries like Vietnam parched.
“The Mekong River is really dirty,” he said during an interview in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang, where he took a break before a 79km swim toward the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
While people in Laos and Cambodia throw things into the river, factories are Vietnam’s major problem.
“You have a lot of factories along the Mekong River and I don’t know if all of them respect the environment.”
He said there are no factories along the river in China as the banks are too steep to build on and almost nothing in Laos or Cambodia.
Vietnamese environmental authorities in 2012 reported that the Tien River, one of two tributaries of the Mekong River in Vietnam, has been severely contaminated, with pollutants like ammonium compounds and mercury exceeding normal levels by up to 1,000 times.
Camus said he saw people drink from the river in all of the countries he traveled through, but while the water was not that bad in China, it grew increasingly terrible downstream.
He said he asked people to stop doing so, though he could offer them no alternative.
People in some Lao villages drink from the river as there’s no running water in their area; many of them cannot afford health care or treatment.
He said he drank from the river too, but he only spent six months doing so and plans on submitting to an examination when he returns to France.
His feet swelled while in Laos, and got worse in Cambodia and Vietnam--so much so, he couldn't wear shoes.
Camus suspects his condition may have been caused by poor water quality, as he was totally fine during the two months he spent on the upstream portion.
Other problems with the river include damming and overfishing in China, and damming and dredging in Laos, which reduces currents.
While in China, he encountered two dams that were under construction and another that was due to finish in a year.
More were still in the works.
“They'll do it, without even asking if that will affect you or not,” he said.
At these portions, Camus hired a vehicle to carry him and his riverboard to the other side.
“I think the Mekong River is a big competition between China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar. Big competition because they want to get everything from the Mekong River without sharing.”
He said huge fishing nets criss-crossed the Chinese stretch of the river; he was even caught up in one.
He blamed the governments for their short-sighted policies.
“When you die, the river’s gonna be here, and a thousand years on, the river will still be here.
“We have to respect our children, we’re gonna give them something good for them, so they will be the same, otherwise we'll suck up all the energy of the earth.”
Camus recalled the several hundred kilometers through Vietnam as the toughest part of his swim due to high tides.
“I didn't expect that, but the tides were going up and down 250 kilometers from the [East Sea], which is quite a long way… It was a nightmare.”
He said the tides only occurred from Phnom Penh, south and he had to check several websites to make sure he only swam during low tide – sometimes from noon to six at night, sometimes from the middle of the night to six in the morning.
Camus started his river journey last October with help from around 15 French donors.
The 29-year-old did not go to college. After finishing high school, he got a hospitality training certificate and started traveling.
He had visited Laos, Cambodia and Thailand before, so he chose the Mekong River for his expedition and spent a year and four months preparing for it.
Four friends helped him build his riverboard, outfitting it with sturdy bumpers and solar panels to charge his laptop and camera.
He packed all necessities in waterproof and vacuum bags.
Camus says he swam during the day and slept on a hammock strung between trees along the banks at night.
He skipped 60 kilometers of upstream waters in Tibet after he had problems gaining entrance permits and launched his journey on the border between Tibet and mainstream China.
He was stopped by Vientiane authorities in January over accusations that his travel plans violated the law. He was let go after a month-long investigation.
The Laos authorities told him to stick to the left side of the river as he only had a visa from Laos and not Thailand (which is on the right of the river).
Camius he said he had to ignore that and swim along the currents that were fastest. “If it’s fast on the left I swim in the left, if it’s fast in the middle I stay in the middle.”
He said at many places in China and Thailand where he didn't have a visa, he was not bothered by the authorities as he slept on the river bank in remote areas where there were no officials around.
Camus said he expected to gain some money from the river expedition to build a clean water source for river residents.
At the very least, he says he's made many more people aware of the situation.
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