Cleandanube: mission accomplished

Professor Andreas Fath completes 2,700-kilometre-long Danube swim marathon for the environment and science

He’s crossed the finishing line. Prof. Dr. Andreas Fath has swum the full length of the Danube, a total of 2,700 kilometres, as part of his Cleandanube project. One of the arms of the Danube flows into the Black Sea at Sulina (Romania). The swimming professor reached the inland sea here on 17 June. The journey began on 19 April in Furtwangen (Germany) but Fath was not able to start swimming until just outside Ulm, and from Kelheim on the water was navigable for the accompanying ship, the MS Marbach. In total, it was 57 days of swimming. "I am overjoyed that I managed to make it," says Fath. However, he didn't take on this athletic challenge to set a course record; his focus is on environmental education and science. "We held workshops on environmental topics during the whole period I was swimming from the Black Forest to the Danube Delta. We met many environmental and political activitists. And it is these encounters that will stay with me most after swimming the Danube." Baden-Württemberg's Environment Minister Thekla Walker swam the Danube with Andreas Fath in Ulm, and Slovenia's Environment Minister Jan Budaj welcomed him in Bratislava. There was a great deal of media interest in the swimming professor – for example, Andreas Fath was a live studio guest on breakfast television in Belgrade.

Andreas Fath is professor of chemistry at Furtwangen University. In 2014 he swam the entire length of the Rhine, and in 2017 he swam the Tennessee River in the USA. His aim has always been to raise awareness for the importance of water as a resource. Far too many pollutants still end up in rivers, either because wastewater is discharged directly, or because sewage treatment plants cannot remove all the dissolved substances. "I'm already very excited about the next few weeks, which we will devote to evaluating the water samples," Fath said. "During the trip, we conducted rapid water tests on a daily basis. Those have already given us a rough picture of the water quality. The details, however, will only come from our analysis of the microplastics and the evaluation of the so-called passive samplers, which will be carried out at the University of Vienna." In the two previous river projects, for example, it was possible to closely observe the increase in the amounts of dissolved pharmaceuticals or antifungal agents over the course of the river. "With the Danube, it will be particularly exciting, because the river flows through several major cities, and on the section of the river which flows through Serbia, a non-EU country, entirely different pollution guidelines apply," says Fath. In Belgrade, the water was so dirty that the swimming professor was forced to board his accompanying ship, the MS Marbach, in the city area, to avoid exposure to the hazardous elements in the water.

There were several challenges during the early stages: the water temperature of the Danube was only 11 degrees; then a shoulder inflammation came along, which has in the meantime healed. The average river flow rate in the lower Danube in June is 6,500 cubic metres per second; currently it is only 4,500, which meant Andreas Fath needed a lot more power to make progress. On each swimming day Fath covered between 30 and 70 kilometres, with the day normally divided into two stages – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This meant he was in the water for up to ten hours a day. Snacks were served to him by those accompanying him in the kayak, and for lunch he came aboard the MS Marbach. The ship also served as a floating laboratory and hotel for the support team. On land, workshops were held to accompany the swim. School classes and teenagers learned a lot about biodiversity and how to avoid plastic waste. "Young people need to be sensitised to what can be done to keep bodies of water clean," says Fath. In addition, various events were run at numerous stage destinations in cooperation with local organisations. These included shoreline cleanups, lectures, film screenings and canoe trips.

Ukraine
The project had originally included the Danube region of Ukraine, but due to the war, this was obviously not possible. The Cleandanube project supported refugee children from Ukraine by collecting donations in kind at the stopover points until Vienna was reached. Gym bags recycled from PET bottles were filled with the donated materials and handed over to an aid organisation. "At night, in the last few days, I’ve heard bomb blasts from the direction of Ukraine," reports Andreas Fath. "This war in Ukraine has been on my mind a lot. If you asked me where I would like to swim to right now, I would say, through the Black Sea to the Crimean peninsula, to demonstrate for peace. Like Lynne Cox did in 1987 when she swam through the Bering Strait across the border between the USA and the Soviet Union. That was a symbolic border crossing at the end of the cold war.”

Fellow swimmers
"My meetings with other long-distance swimmers were very memorable. That's how I met Avram Iancu, who swam the entire Danube without a wetsuit in 2017." Teodor Tsvetkov and Sona Rebrova are two other record-breaking swimmers Andreas Fath met on the Danube. Dr. Thorsten Hüffer from the University of Vienna swam alongside him on a couple of days. And his son Moritz, also a top swimmer, accompanied Andreas Fath on a few legs, including the Black Sea final. "That always motivated me more when someone swam with me or told me about their swimming experiences," says Andreas Fath.  

Project overview and film
The project website www.cleandanube.org shows the entire swimming route, as well as the quick test results. A documentary film about the extraordinary journey is being made, with the premiere scheduled for autumn this year. Dates will be posted on the website.

Strong cooperation partners support the trans-national project
AWP, founded in 2011, is a non-profit association based in Freiburg im Breisgau. It has been initiating nature conservation projects in the Danube region since 2017. Two international environmental education projects have already been successfully implemented along the Danube - one in 2018 and one in 2019.

Furtwangen University is a co-organiser of the project providing organisational support, including the mobile laboratory and public relations.

More than 50 organisations from the countries through which the River Danube flows cooperated in the project. These include, besides local branches of large, well-known environmental protection organisations, small and medium-sized local NGOs, universities, educational institutions, schools, municipalities and cities, as well as inter-regional networks and public institutions. The project is funded by the Baden-Württemberg Foundation and the Postcode Lottery, as well as by the main sponsors Hansgrohe, Menschen brauchen Menschen e.V. and Arburg. The Friends of Furtwangen University also provides financial support.