Remembering Saneeya Hussain

20 April 2007: It’s exactly two years ago that Saneeya Hussain left us.

Saneeya was a journalist who took a special interest in environment and human rights issues. All her working life, she campaigned tirelessly for a cleaner, safer and more equitable society for everyone — not just in her native Pakistan, but everywhere.

Ironically, it was the urban nightmare that we have collectively created that finally snatched her away at the prime of her career. She was 51.


I first met Saneeya when we both worked for the same global organisation – IUCN, The World Conservation Union. She headed IUCN Pakistan’s Communication Division while I started a similar division for IUCN in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s. In fact, the trails she and her team had blazed in Pakistan was a model and inspiration for us.

In 1998, Saneeya moved to Cape Town in South Africa to work with the World Commission on Dams, an independent group of experts that had a tough mandate: consult widely to resolve the controversial issues associated with large dams. When the Commission held its South Asia consultations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saneeya approached us at TVE Asia Pacific to handle all the media relations.

It was while working in Cape Town that Saneeya met Luis Ferraz, a Brazilian geographer, whom she married later.


In 2002, Saneeya became the Executive Director of Panos South Asia, a regional media organisation with its headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal. As a Board member of Panos, I worked closely with Saneeya in a number of projects and activities.

Although everyone at Panos and in Kathmandu liked her, Saneeya’s stay there was cut short by what her successor at Panos, A S Panneerselvan, called her Siamese twin: asthma.

It was asthma that forced Saneeya to leave Nepal – and the Panos director’s job – as she just couldn’t cope with Kathmandu’s polluted air. As a fellow asthmatic, I fully empathised with her. She moved to Sao Paulo, where she set up what was to be her final home.

What happened in April 2005 has been written and discussed widely by Saneeya’s far-flung network of friends in the past two years. I can only reproduce the last few paras of a tribute I wrote in May 2005, which was privately circulated at the time:

When Saneeya suffered an acute attack of asthma in Sao Paulo on April 7, her husband Luis rushed her to hospital in his car. It was rush hour at 6.30 in the evening, and it took him 20 minutes to drive to the hospital only 2 kilometres away. Saneeya — who had walked to the car — stopped breathing five minutes into the journey. Luis drove as fast as the traffic would allow him, but as it turned out, not nearly fast enough.

Her brain suffered too much damage due to oxygen deprivation, and she never recovered.

As Luis was to remark later, it was not asthma but the traffic that killed Saneeya.

Similar tragic scenarios unfold on South Asia’s mean streets every day. Heart and stroke patients fail to reach help in time. Ambulences and fire engines, with their sirens blaring, only manage to proceed at a snail’s pace. It’s not uncommon for expectant mothers in labour to give birth on their way to hospitals. Then there is the slow, insidious poisoning that goes on 24/7.

So let us be forewarned. If the air pollution doesn’t get us, the traffic jams will. And if we survive both, our road accidents will wait for us. It’s only a matter of time.

Not one but several serial killers are out there.

And we unleashed them all.


Our mutual friend Beena Sarwar (in the photo above, with Saneeya) has made a 14-minute documentary called Celebrating Saneeya. It was screened at the 5th Karachi International Film Festival in December 2005.

See also my essay ‘Grappling with Asia’s Tsunami of the Air’ (December 2006).

All photos from Saneeya Yahoo Group that links her friends around the world.

The return of the ‘Donnish young man’

Some of my friends who read this blog think I’m fond of name dropping. It’s just that I keep meeting some really interesting and accomplished people as I travel around the world in the course of my work.

Each such encounter enriches me. I write about some of these here to share that joy and inspiration.

Remember I wrote about Robyn Williams , the doyen of science broadcasting in Australia, and his analogy of science journalists and whales?

Well, Robyn and I are among the few participants at the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists here in Melbourne who were also at the first such conference, some 15 years ago. That was held in Tokyo, Japan, in the Fall of 1992.
Jim Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association (IWSA) is another.


In Tokyo, Jim Cornell invited me to join a panel discussion on science journalism in the developing countries. I was 26 at the time, and was on my first visit to Japan. All these years later, I can’t recall everything I said. But I remember how I quoted Karan Singh, a former minister of population in India, to the effect that in many poor countries where survival was a daily struggle, ‘Development is the best contraceptive’.

Robyn Williams picked this up in an account of the conference he wrote up in UNESCO Sources, the monthly magazine published by the UN’s science agency. He described me as ‘a donnish young man from Sri Lanka’!

I’ve been trying to live this down ever since.

From whales to bacteria: the adaptable science journalist

What happens when a few hundred witty, metaphor-happy journalists are let loose for a week?

They come up with all sorts of new ways to describe themselves!

First it was Australian science broadcaster Robyn Williams who compared science journalists with whales.

He suggested this analogy during the opening of the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne earlier this week.

Heading in the micro end of the animal kingdom, a leading South African science journalist thinks some of her kind are like extremophile bacteria: hardy enough to survive in very harsh environments.

Christina Scott was referring to the tough working conditions of many journalists – including those covering science – working in the developing countries.

She and I were part of a plenary session today on Reporting science in emerging economies which started off the final day of sessions at the conference. Others on the panel were T V Padma (India), Jia Hepeng (China), Talent Ng’andwe (Zambia) and Luisa Massarani (Brazil). All of us are associated with the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) in one way or another – as correspondents, regional coordinators, or in my case as a Trustee.

The session surveyed the technological, cultural, political and economic factors that stand in the way of good science journalism in developing regions of the world. We presented our experiences and perspectives on the status of our profession – and hopes for the future.

Yes, we recognised the many odds we are working against. But on the whole it was a message of resilience, adaptability and survival.

I ended my own remarks saying: Life finds a way in the harshest of environments. So does science journalism. In conditions far from ideal, science journalism happens. Not just on and off, but on a regular basis.

We are good at what I call ‘wonderful improvisation’.

SciDev.Net coverage of the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists

Collective blog of SciDev.Net team at the conference

Personal blog of Talent Ng’andwe

blog post on our session can be read here