Exploration and Conservation
From the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, Ann Bancroft made history with her 60-day, water conservation-themed expedition along the Ganges River.
When it comes to daunting environmental issues like water pollution and depletion, how does one begin to make a difference?
Working hard in a laboratory or statehouse, developing water-saving science and ecofriendly laws can help tremendously; but, for Ann Bancroft and her small team of compatriots, the best way to affect change was to get on the water itself. That’s why, in October 2015, the world-famous explorer joined her longtime expedition partner, Liv Arnesen, and six young women from around the world to spend two months journeying down the Ganges River.
The Ganges expedition, which began in Gaumukh and ended at the Bay of Bengal, was the first leg of Access Water, an ambitious water conservation initiative. The team plans to visit every continent and conclude their journey in Antarctica in 2026. Education and advocacy are key elements of the Access Water initiative.
A central goal of this expedition series is to create networks and partnerships across communities, countries and continents to empower everyone to learn and take action in the fight to purify waterways. During the 2015 expedition, the team regularly met with local schools and organizations along the Ganges to share knowledge and discuss ways to improve water quality.
As the co-creator of Access Water along with Arnesen, Bancroft is no stranger to exploring new territory, both literally and figuratively. For example, she is the first woman to reach both the North and South Poles on foot. Bancroft found that her accomplishments reverberated far beyond the mountains and valleys she explored.
“When I went to the North Pole [in 1986], I found a new platform for speaking, as a woman, as a teacher, as an ordinary citizen,” Bancroft told Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper in early 2016. “Expeditions have power way beyond my own ambition: power to engage young people to find their own voice. I’d been given this platform, and I thought I’d better not squander it.”
Excerpts from an interview.
How would you describe Access Water in your own words?
For the last 30 years, I have been merging my passion for out-of-doors expeditions with my passion for education, engaging young people around the world by using the excitement of an expedition with curriculum. Access Water is a collaboration between me and Liv Arnesen. After years of working as a pair, we decided to assemble a global team of young women to help spread the message of freshwater issues around the globe. Each woman is from a different continent and is uniquely able to listen and exchange stories about the issues of freshwater. Each expedition is designed to engage, through education, students and communities to think about and manage their freshwater.
There are many ecological challenges that we face. Why focus on water?
Water conservation is important to me because without it there is no life. We need to understand our reliance on this precious resource and find ways to take care of it.
As educators, it allows us, as a team, to discuss many issues and topic areas. As explorers, we can weave our life on the river with the themes of what is needed to help make positive change.
Of all the rivers in the world, why did you decide to trek the Ganges first?
We chose the Ganges River as the first in the series of seven rivers because it encompasses many intersections of topics, starting from a glacier, the source. We witness and honor the water being released from the glacier, fresh and cold. From there, we travel down the river as its personality changes on the plains. We visit schools, groups in villages and cities and share the complexities of what the river reveals, as we travel to the sea. The pressures of population, agriculture, industries, recreation and religion allow us to learn, listen and observe, as well as relate back to our regions of the world.
What were your key goals for the trip?
Our goals were to experience, firsthand, the holy river and the people along its shores. We had many scheduled visits to schools along the route, as well as many spontaneous visits to villages, large and small, and large cities. We learned about the efforts in play to take care of the river, the different attitudes about its issues, myths and customs. One of the exciting parts was to know that the curriculum we introduced and had translated with strong partnerships will continue for five years.
What was a day on the river like?
Often, we were up at 5 a.m. We had looked at the maps to see the miles needed to be covered [that day]. Each woman had her own tent, and after a quick coffee or tea, we washed our faces with water from a well we had found near a town or village. After breakfast, we were in the boats. Sometimes, we had schools to visit downriver. Other days, we maybe stopped on the shore if a temple looked interesting. Sometimes, we had conversations along the shores as we stopped for a break or for lunch.
The terrain changed all the time, and it was always surprising. We never expected to see the Ganges dolphin that we had read about but, almost every day, we would see them breach near our boats. The bird life on the river was also amazing. And, of course, the water buffalo on land, trotting past our lunch spot or crossing the river in front of our boats, was always an adventure!
In the late afternoon, and sometimes after dark, we would set up our camp and pitch our tents, sometimes in the tall grasses and sometimes under bridges near big cities. We would have dinner, charge our phones, cameras and computers and try to get images and stories out on social media and to our crew back home. Days were hot under the sun and evenings often cool.
What are some of the key things that you took away from your time on the Ganges?
I learned so much on this trip. I relearned the power that we all have to make changes in our neighborhoods and communities. We met people who demonstrated this over and over again. A 12-year-old boy talked about what he had learned in terms of not bathing in the river with so many soaps—he knew that the river could not purify with the numbers of people and animals all needing the river. He was articulate and strong. He gave me so much hope.
I learned that there is no one answer to the challenges we face but, if we are open to listening and learning from others, we can begin to make strides in cleaning up our freshwaters.
Do you have any advice for young readers who want to follow in your footsteps?
As a teacher and an explorer, I think one of the biggest themes that stands out for me, no matter what your age, is to stay curious and to always have the desire to keep learning. With curiosity, mixed with passion, one can do anything the heart desires. I’d like to say that the best successes I have had in my expeditions lay in doing my homework, my preparation. Follow your heart and surround yourself with people who believe in you and your dreams.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.