22 Mar 2024 4 min read

Water: Guard it with your life

By Lewis Pugh

On World Water Day, Lewis Pugh highlights the importance of looking after the fresh water arteries of our world.


Water, water everywhere, yet not a drop to drink. The desperate cry from a sailor stranded on his becalmed ship in the middle of a vast ocean is from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Surrounded by salty ocean water, the mariner is dying of thirst for want of fresh drinking water.

I’ve known the feeling. The thirst that builds up during a long-distance swim feels immense. I’m always well hydrated before I start, I have fresh water on hand from my support crew, and I make sure to replace lost fluid and electrolytes after each swim, so my body can recuperate properly.

The human body cannot survive more than a few days without drinking water. Without water, our thirst will drive us mad, like the Ancient Mariner, and then it will kill us.

Where is all the water?

Most of the world’s water – 97 percent of it[1] – is in our salty oceans. Which is wonderful for the fish and other salt water creatures – and those of us who love to swim in it. The rest of life on this planet has to rely on the remaining three percent, which is what we call ‘fresh’ water.

Much of this fresh water is inaccessible, locked up in glaciers, in ice caps and in permafrost. The tiny portion that is available to us is in rivers and lakes.

Every living system on our planet depends on this fresh water – to hydrate, to irrigate, to travel, to cleanse, and to drink. So you’d think we would look after it – literally guard it with our lives, since those very lives depend on it.

Know your river

But …. have you been down to your local river lately? If you are lucky, it will be free flowing, clean and clear, alive with fish and other creatures along its shores. Its catchment will be verdant and spongey, filtering the water that drains through it on its way to the river and the sea.

If you live in a city, however, chances are your nearest waterway has been abused and misused, encased in concrete, used as a dump and a sewer. It will have been deprived of its ability to absorb excess water after a storm.

As UN Patron of the Oceans, I am known for swimming in the world’s oceans – every single one of them, in fact. When people asked me why I started swimming in rivers, I tell them that our rivers lead to our oceans. Everything is connected. What we throw into our rivers ends up in the seas. The oceans in turn determine our well-being in wonderfully complex ways – not least of which is balancing our planet’s weather system.

This World Water Day, I’m challenging everyone to visit their nearest river. It won’t be difficult – 90% of people live within 10km of a river[2]. If yours is a healthy ecosystem, celebrate it. Join an open-water swimming group. Swim in it. Run alongside it. Picnic on its banks.

If it isn’t – do something about it.

Keep it clean

Take inspiration from the people of the New York’s Hudson River – where I completed my latest swim in partnership with LGIM.  New York residents joined together to clean up one of the world’s most polluted waterways through committed citizen action and pressure on their politicians. There is still some way to go, with industrial ‘forever chemicals’ like PCBs[3] still lingering on the river bed. But their ongoing passionate action to stop sewer overflows, and the dumping of radioactive waste, in order to protect their river, is some of the most inspiring I have ever witnessed.

Life on this Earth began in its oceans. Maybe that’s why, as an endurance swimmer, I feel so at home in the salt water. But lately, I’m drawn more and more to those fresh water arteries of our world, because we need to respect and protect them.

Come join me.

LGIM’s stance: what we’re doing to protect the global water system

LGIM has identified nature as one of six strategic themes for our engagement activities, of which water is a key pillar, as outlined in our Nature Framework. Our new Water Policy is due to be published over the next few months, and will include how we engage at a policy and corporate level to help preserve and protect marine and freshwater ecosystems.


[1] Source: NASA Earthdata, as at March 2024 Ocean | Earthdata (nasa.gov)

[2] 'How Close Do We Live to Water? A Global Analysis of Population Distance to Freshwater Bodies' by Matti Kummu, Hans de Moel, Philip J. Ward, and Olli Varis. 2011 How Close Do We Live to Water? A Global Analysis of Population Distance to Freshwater Bodies - PMC (nih.gov)

[3] PCBs are Polychlorinated Biphenyls, a group of man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms.

Lewis Pugh

Endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans

Lewis Pugh swims in the most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth to call for their protection. He was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world. He was also the first to swim across the North Pole and the first to swim the full length of the English Channel. Lewis has been instrumental in protecting over two million km² of vulnerable ocean – an area larger than Western Europe. At LGIM, we are united with Lewis in our aim to tackle the climate crisis. We believe inaction is not an option and are proud to support Lewis’ efforts to raise awareness and push for positive change.

Lewis Pugh