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Adventurer’s 500km Swim Showcases an American River Slowly Healing

Anyone who happens to be walking by New York State’s Hudson River in the next two weeks may see a figure heading downstream wearing a white swimming cap emblazoned with the logo of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This is Lewis Pugh, an English-South African endurance swimmer who is aiming to navigate the 517km-long Hudson with mostly goggles, Speedos and that swimming cap.

The swim is designed to shine a spotlight on the decades-long campaign to revive the Hudson River, once one of the United States’ most-polluted waterways. Pugh is hoping his swim will raise awareness among both the public and policymakers about the importance of protecting the world’s rivers, which are under mounting pressure from pollution and climate change.

“Rivers are the Earth’s arteries,” said Pugh. “Our planet is a living system and every living thing needs clean water. Without clean rivers, every community and every ecosystem suffers.”

A closeup of man swimming in a swimming cap

Pugh’s swim comes at a challenging time for the planet’s waterways, which are being inundated by plastic, sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial toxins. Fully one-third of all rivers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are badly polluted by pathogens.

Meanwhile, the climate crisis has sparked a surge in river-stifling droughts while water extraction, including for farming, has reduced flows to the point where some major rivers no longer reach the sea.  Some 4 billion people – half the planet – now experience water scarcity at least one month a year, a number projected to grow to 5.7 billion by 2050.

A chequered past

The Hudson River, which rises in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and winds its way south until it reaches New York Harbour, had long been the poster child for polluted waterways.

It was connected to the Great Lakes by the Erie Canal in 1825 and became a vital shipping route, helping grow New York City’s economy. Yet this growth came at a price, with the river suffering pollution from factories, industry, logging and construction.

Pugh swimming in Antarctica

People walk on a bridge

Between 1947 and 1977, the conglomerate General Electric dumped an estimated 589,000kg of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)  into the Hudson, contaminating a 320km stretch of the river. A type of ‘forever chemical’, PCBs – which were used in everything from paints to pesticides – not only contaminate groundwater, wildlife and sediment, they have been linked to a range of health problems in humans, including skin lesions and infertility. PCBs were banned globally in 2001, but their effects can last for generations.

The Hudson was also a dumping ground for raw sewage, litter and industrial waste, which flowed from the factories along its banks. The river became so polluted that in 1976 officials banned almost all commercial fishing along much of its length.

The river also faced threats from power plants, such as the Indian Point nuclear facility, which killed millions of fish a year as it sucked water in to cool its reactors.

Turning the corner

The river’s fate, though, began to turn in the early 1970s.

In 1972 the United States passed the Clean Water Act, which stopped companies routinely dumping toxins into the river.

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency – along with General Electric and New York State – started dredging PCB-laden silt from the river, a project that was completed in 2015. Sections of the river near former General Electric factories were declared safe to swim and fish in again.

Over the years, community groups and authorities have launched other projects large and small to clean the river.

 A closeup of man swimming in a swimming cap

These include an effort to relocate 1 billion oysters to New York Harbour, which help filter out pollution. On Manhattan, a group of conservationists are building an offshore reef to protect one of the city’s last remaining marshes from being washed away. And the Hudson River Estuary Habitat Restoration Plan sees local communities working with national and state agencies to revitalize the tidal Hudson and its watershed.

A river rebounds

These efforts are starting to pay dividends, with species such as sturgeon increasing in numbers. Today, swimmers, kayakers and anglers are a common sight on parts of the river, a notable change from a few decades ago.

And although concerns remain around the decline in some local fish stocks due to invasive species and man-made barriers to fish, such as weirs, the Hudson has been transformed, say experts.

“The Hudson River shows that it is possible to restore even the world’s dirtiest rivers,” says Leticia Carvalho, head of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater branch. “It takes a concerted effort from politicians, corporations and grassroots organizations. But the benefits for both people and wildlife are game-changing.”

Globally, there is growing momentum to restore ailing rivers. In March, a half-dozen developing countries vowed to renew some 300,000km of waterways – enough to circle the Earth seven times – and encouraged other nations to follow suit. The plan has been called the largest river restoration effort in history.

In March 2017, three rivers, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India, were given the legal status of persons, affording them a host of protections. That’s part of a broader trend that has seen at least 30 countries recognize or propose to recognize the rights of natural features.

A bird flying over the river

The cost to restore rivers, however, can be massive. In 2014, India launched an effort to revive the Ganga River and its surrounding forests, a campaign expected to benefit more than 500 million people. India had spent some US$4.5 billion on the project through 2022. At the same time, experts say that while rivers can be made cleaner, it is unlikely they will ever return to a pristine state once badly polluted.

“Given the condition of so many rivers, restoration is crucial,” said Carvalho. “But it is much better and much cheaper for countries to prevent their waterways from being polluted in the first place.”

The long swim

Adventurer and advocate Pugh, who swam the Arctic Ocean to raise the alarm on the impacts of climate change, is aiming to cover about 16km a day on his journey down the Hudson. His trip is scheduled to end Sept 13, when he’s hoping to reach New York City’s Battery Park. His arrival would coincide with a session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Pugh, who has written an open letter to UN Member States calling on them to prioritize rivers as part of their commitment to preserve global biodiversity, says much work remains to be done on the Hudson. But he is encouraged by the changes he has seen in the river.

“Look at how many tangible improvements have been made – mostly by citizens who care enough to nurse it back to health,” said Pugh. “It is so heartening to see the love people have for this river, and rivers around the world.”

Pollution and Waste

To fight the pervasive impact of pollution on society, UNEP launched #BeatPollution, a strategy for rapid, large-scale and coordinated action against air, land and water pollution. The strategy highlights the impact of pollution on climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and human health. Through science-based messaging, the campaign showcases how transitioning to a pollution-free planet is vital for future generations.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Learn more.

The Rights of Nature

The concept of rights of nature is gaining increasing attention around the world as a mechanism to potentially help strengthen environmental governance and contribute to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At least 30 countries have already proposed and/or given legal recognition to nature’s rights at the national or sub-national level through legal frameworks or judicial decisions. UNEP, together with United Nations Development Programme, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Commission on Environmental Law will host an expert consultation on rights of nature in September 2023.

Source : UNEP