Clean rivers are central to life
UN environment body looks to Rotary’s reach to protect freshwater ecosystems
When Salvador Rico was a boy, his dad leased a farm near the town of Buenavista in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The Ameca River ran nearby, and his older siblings would often stop for a swim when they’d deliver lunch to their dad in the fields. When his sister Agueda contracted polio and died in the 1960s, his family believed the sewage-tainted waters where she swam were to blame. Sitting on his mom’s lap and watching her cry over the loss night after night left an indelible imprint. “I promised myself I would do something to help,” he says.
A path to making good on that promise opened after Rico joined Rotary in the United States in 2007. Two years later, his club, the Rotary Club of South Ukiah, California, partnered with a local environmental group to clean up the Russian River, a vital waterway north of San Francisco. “It brought memories of Mexico, of how the creeks and rivers are so polluted,” Rico says. “I saw that we were doing the cleanup here, and we could probably empower people in Mexico to do the same.”
Rico connected with Rotary members in Mexico at a 2013 project fair in the country. They stayed up late into the night mapping out an ambitious plan, looking at everything from cities where Rotary clubs were located to which communities had no sewage treatment to the biggest industries contributing to water pollution. The river the Mexican Rotarians proposed starting with? None other than the Ameca. “I said, ‘That touches home,’” Rico recalls.
Over several years, Rotarians along the Ameca initiated cleanups, advocated with governments to modernize sewage systems, and convinced a sugar mill to use a composting system for its waste. In the city of Puerto Vallarta at the mouth of the river along the Pacific coast, Rotary members launched a massive cleanup that was backed by government officials. Neighborhood associations took on the project and have continued the work. “That was what we saw was huge with Rotary clubs — their influence in the community,” Rico says. “It’s going and planting the seed, finding leaders, and letting them run with it.”
It’s this local reach and influence that Rotary and the United Nations Environment Programme are banking on for their new collaborative initiative, Community Action for Fresh Water. The two organizations are partnering to empower members of Rotary, Rotaract, and Interact clubs to adopt a body of water, with guidance from UNEP’s experts, step-by-step instructions, and other resources. The strategic partnership was announced in January at Rotary’s International Assembly in Orlando, Florida. “This partnership will help Rotary spur collective action and raise our profile in our newest area of focus, and make the most of existing assets at Rotary and The Rotary Foundation,” RI President-elect Stephanie Urchick says.
How your club can get involved
At all levels, the Cadre of Technical Advisers engages with activities, project design, and monitoring.
- River cleanup days
- Community awareness campaigns
- Commitment to local bodies of water
- Ongoing water cleanup activities
- Basic measuring of water quality, assessing of threats
- Develop project
- plans and connect with partners
- Continuous monitoring and evaluation of watershed health
- Collective site-based action on causes of freshwater degradation
- Connect with UNEP experts and international advocacy
- Reporting to national database (citizen science)
Freshwater systems are under threat from climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, and pollution. Billions of people around the world are at risk because they don’t know how safe surface and groundwater sources are.
UNEP’s goal is to protect ecosystems, and the key is working with the communities living near those systems. That’s where Rotary and its global network come in. “UNEP is excited by this partnership with Rotary and its ability to work directly with local communities on a global scale,” says Gavin Reynolds, an expert with UNEP’s freshwater ecosystems unit. “Rotary, with its global reach, close connection to communities, and action-focused engagement ensuring projects create change and have impact, is an excellent partner for UNEP.”
The initiative will give Rotary clubs a coordinated way to work on protecting the environment, The Rotary Foundation’s seventh area of focus. Clubs will be able to apply for district funds and global grants for Community Action for Fresh Water projects. Activities could include river cleanups, habitat restoration, native plantings, biodiversity projects, wastewater treatment, and lake monitoring.
Rotary’s history with the United Nations dates to the UN’s founding in 1945. For many years, Rotary celebrated Rotary Day at the United Nations. In 2018, that event was held at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, spurring talks about how the two organizations could advance their collaboration. Joe Otin, then Rotary’s representative to UNEP, worked with the agency’s staff to develop the adopt-a-river concept. As Otin was about to become the 2019-20 governor of Rotary District 9212 (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan), the team worked to launch a pilot there.
Otin recalls a stream, a tributary of the Nairobi River, running through the backyard of his family’s home when he was growing up in Nairobi. There were frogs, crayfish, and fish that they would try to catch and keep as pets. “It was an amazing education for me and my siblings, seeing this whole ecosystem come together,” he says. But over time, development strained the waterway. The river became dirtier and dirtier, blackened with human, industrial, and agricultural waste, with a terrible stench, he recalls. The river was dead. “When you look at it on Google Maps, it looks like somebody has taken a black marker and drawn a line over the rivers,” he says.
Otin and his team started researching what success looks like, and for that, they turned to the River Thames, which runs through London and across southern England. Surveys of the polluted river in the 1950s led scientists to declare much of it biologically dead. Thanks to conservation efforts that identified the sources and types of pollutants, incorporated stakeholders, and improved sewage infrastructure, the river today boasts more than 120 fish species.
Rotary members in District 9212, working with UNEP, took that example to heart. They selected nine rivers to focus on, involving 20 Rotary clubs. They focused not just on collecting garbage but cataloging information about the pollution and its impact to drive the development of a long-range plan. This type of data collection is known as citizen science.
“I felt from the beginning that we had to get the concept right,” Otin says. “If we didn’t get the concept right, we’d be doing the same things we’ve been doing from time immemorial.”
UNEP is relying on Rotary clubs to eventually conduct their own citizen science initiatives, with the data they collect contributing toward a global picture for policymakers and donors of the health of the world’s freshwater ecosystems.
While the Rotary-UNEP pilot was developing in Africa, Rico continued his work to clean rivers in Mexico and beyond, partnering with Rotary Action Groups, including those for water, sanitation, and hygiene and for environmental sustainability, to spread the project globally. Rotary clubs have been involved in river cleanups in countries including Ecuador, Colombia, India, Egypt, Serbia, Turkey, Venezuela, and more.
In September, Rotary clubs, nonprofit organizations, companies, and the government of Guatemala signed an agreement to create an alliance to clean up the Motagua River. The waterway, one of the world’s most polluted rivers, carries at least 8,500 metric tons of waste to the Caribbean every year. A few days later, Rico traveled to Honduras, part of the Motagua River basin, to attend a signing ceremony for participating Rotary clubs in both countries.
“I went to the beach. You cannot walk barefoot on the beach, there are so many needles, all kinds of plastics,” he says. “I wanted to do a cleanup, but we cleaned up about 50 meters. You could probably fill a truck, it was that bad.”
Still, he’s motivated to keep going. “It’s a promise I made to my mom,” he says, “so I cannot stop until it’s done.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.