When Sam Bencheghib was all of 20, and a university student, he along with his brother Gary Bencheghib went out kayaking. But it was no ordinary kayak. They had built it using plastic bottles, and the river they paddled through was one of Indonesia’s most polluted rivers – Citarum River.
“We decided to kayak down this river to show the world the real Citarum River, and we built these two kayaks out of plastic water bottles. We were extremely terrified at first, what if we fell in the river? What disease can we get from kayaking only 50 centimetres above the surface of this water. But we decided to go down this river for two weeks, brought our cameras with us, filmed the expedition, and released the videos on social media,” says Bencheghib, while recalling the incident from five years back.
And overnight, the videos went viral, they reached millions of people on Facebook, and even got the attention of the Indonesian President. “Three months later, he hired 7000 soldiers to clean up the Citarum River,” he says.
But this river warrior from Bali didn’t stop with that.
“In 2020, I ran from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific Ocean, from New York City all the way to Los Angeles. “So that’s roughly 5000 kilometers, 117 marathons. It seems like a huge feat but I thought to myself, if I take it one day at a time, if every time that I run, I can meet many people and create awareness. The goal of this expedition was to bring the ocean to Americans and to landlocked states that don’t have access to the ocean, to talk about plastic pollution,” he adds.
He ran for six months and spoke to 15,000 people. Together with his sister Kelly and brother Gary (who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2022), he helps run the Make a Change Foundation, an environmental media and production company. “Two years ago, we started a new organisation called Sungai Watch. Sungai means river in Indonesian language. And we’re now on a mission to stop plastic from going into the ocean,” Bencheghib says.
Sungai Watch was started as a community movement by hosting cleanups on riverbanks in polluted rivers on the island of Bali. “And we would get 50 people, 100 people, 200 people to come every week to help us clean these rivers. But cleanups are a bandage solution. And if we can work with technology, then that’s where we can create real impact. Technology that is simple, but effective, but scalable. That’s really the sort of technology we’re looking at. And so we’re building these really simple but effective barriers that are made from PVC pipes, which allows it to float and then a metal grid that sits 50 to 80 centimeters below the surface of the water. So it catches most of the stuff, floating plastics. And we’ve now installed 150 of these, but the work of the communities, the work of local people is really what makes this work,” he adds.
Bencheghib values storytelling in bringing a change. “I think if we can use the tools that we have available at our fingertips, using our camera, as a weapon, to reach the masses, using social media to get this message heard by millions of people, we can really highlight on not just the problem, but also focus on the solutions and focus on the things that people can do to make a change and to create impact,” he says. “We’re showing that it is possible to clean rivers and it is possible to fight plastic pollution by installing simple technologies, by working with communities, by empowering locals, then, we have a chance at fixing this issue. And I think that that’s really the role of storytelling and shocking imagery,” he concludes.
Sam Bencheghib surely walks the talk. In his case, he runs.