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Runners complete monster Sahara marathon in UN bid to focus on global water crisis

Runners complete monster Sahara marathon in UN bid to focus on global water crisis

Exhausted, sore, sun-scorched, dehydrated, satisfied and proud, three young athletes have completed a remarkable ultra-marathon across the Sahara Desert, running the equivalent of two traditional marathons a day for 111 days over 7,300 kilometres (4580 miles) in a United Nations-backed bid to raise awareness of the burgeoning global water crisis.

“I’m tired and stiff, but happy to be done; it was an incredible experience,” Ray Zahab of Canada said after reaching the Egyptian Red Sea coast last week with his two fellow-runners, Charlie Engle of the United States and Kevin Lin from Taiwan, province of China, after pounding over endless sands and camel tracks, past towering dunes, stark rock mountains and mud-brick mosques, through oases and nomad settlements.

The odyssey of the three, who left St. Louis in Senegal in early November and passed through Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Libya before entering Egypt, will be the subject of a feature documentary film, “Running the Sahara,” directed by Oscar winner James Moll and narrated by another Oscar laureate, Matt Damon, who is also executive producer, with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) as co-producer. The 90-minute film is slated for international release in late 2007.

In addition to the Saharan temperatures, the three battled blinding sandstorms, biting and stinging insects and other pests, and the many physical afflictions that accompany a run across an entire continent. UNDP supported the project, and the runners during their saga visited UNDP anti-poverty and community-development projects and Global Environment Facility work in North Africa.

These included water-management, governance and peace-building efforts in Mali and Niger, a conservation project for medicinal plants in Egypt, dam construction in Mauritania, and a school in Senegal. The three stopped to talk to villagers and nomads about the challenges they face living with the scarcity of water live in the 5.6 million square kilometres of the Sahara.

“For the runners, water is a daily necessity,” Irena Mihova, a UNDP co-producer for the project, said. ”For the people of the Sahara, and throughout the developing world, it is a lifelong concern.”

According to UNDP’s 2006 Human Development Report, lack of clean water and sanitation causes nearly 2 million child deaths every year. Mr. Damon is partnering with the H2O Africa Foundation to raise funds and awareness to address the scarcity of clean drinking water in Africa.

The report calls on the Group of Eight (G-8) developed nations to spearhead an urgent global action plan to resolve the world’s growing water and sanitation crisis.