A Silent Emergency: More television sets than toilets!

Read a later blog post: Faecal Attraction: There’s no such thing as a convenient flush…

It was September 2004. My daughter Dhara, eight years at the time (or ‘eight plus’ as she insisted on saying), had a complaint.

The toilets in her school were not clean enough. She was finding it squeamish to use them. So she was doing her best to avoid going to the loo: she’d drink less, and try to ‘hold back’ until she could rush home.

Like many sheltered middle class kids, she was still coming to terms with the wider world outside her home. And she attends a well endowed private school where, I am told, toilets are cleaned regularly by janitors engaged by the school.

Now we cut to eleven-year-old Susheela, a girl growing up in neighbouring India. I’ve never met her in person, but this sentence summed up her tragic story:
“I was always first in the class. I am very much interested in studies. I want to become a lawyer. But my mother stopped me from going to school after Class V as the middle school I was attending, 5 km from my house, had no toilet. Can someone help me?”

This was the opening of an article on water and sanitation written by Indian journalist Dr Asha Krishnakumar and published in the news magazine Frontline (part of The Hindu group) at the end of 2003. It was titled: A Silent Emergency.

dr-asha-krishnakumar.jpg Image courtesy WSSCC

It was several months later that I actually read Asha’s article. By coincidence, my daughter was having her own ‘toilet issue’ at the time — and the contrast was striking.

Asha’s article continued:
Susheela’s anguish is shared by a large number of girls in India who drop out of school for what sounds like an absurd reason: want of a toilet in school. “Sanitation is closely linked to female literacy in India,” says a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study. According to V. Balakrishnan, convener of the Tamil Nadu Primary Schools Improvement Campaign, the lack of proper toilet facilities in schools has a definite and significant bearing on the drop-out rate of girls, particularly around the time they reach Class VIII. In 2000, barely 10 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s 40,000 government schools had usable toilets; the figure is much lower for the country as a whole.

I’d been covering development issues in the media for over 15 years, but this stark reality had not occurred to me. In some developing countries, girls face a greater struggle in enrolling in school and staying on. There are cultural, social and economic factors working against educating girls.

And as Asha’s article revealed, there are other, less known factors adding to this burden.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Indian census data had revealed in 2001 that, some parts of the country had more television sets than toilets.

Asha’s was one of three dozen excellent media articles on water and sanitation that I read that month as a judge in an international award scheme to recognise the best media reporting on the issue. Organised by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), it was meant to to encourage broader media coverage of water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues in the developing world.

The initiative, first launched in 2002, is open to journalists from developing countries, who write or broadcast original investigative reports on WASH issues. The Collaborative Council seeks to use the WASH Media Awards as part of the broader goals of fostering sustainable relations with journalists in developing nations, and increasing media coverage of WASH issues.

WASH has recently announced the next media awards, covering print and broadcast media coverage from 1 July 2007 to 30 April 2008. This time around, it also involves the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

Winning entries will be presented at the World Water Week in Stockholm , Sweden in August 2008. Deadline for the submission of entries is on or before May 15, 2008. Read the announcement

In 2004, the recipient of the first WASH Media Award was Nadia El-Awady from Egypt for her outstanding article “The Nile and its People”. It illustrated the impacts of industrial pollution, sewage and solid waste management on people’s health and dignity along the River Nile.

We evaluated a large number of high quality entries and decided to give special recognition and Certificates of Appreciation to several other journalists. Asha was one of them.

A few months later, it was my privilege to meet Asha in person at a workshop on media and sustainable development that TVE Asia Pacific organised as part of the Education for a Sustainable Future conference in Ahmedabad, India, in January 2005. The photo shows Asha addressing our workshop while Darryl D’Monte, fellow judge in WASH media awards looks on.


By another coincidence, the lady on the right is Nadia El-Awady who was overall winner of the WASH media award. At the time she was the Health and Science Page Editor of IslamOnline.net. She has since been promoted.

Either the world is smaller than we think, or our networks are larger than we imagine.

But I will always be grateful to Asha for opening my eyes on a silent emergency. One that I have since explained to my daughter. She no longer complains.

Read the WASH press release on 2004 media award winners

Read the publication on WASH Media Awards 2004

Read WASH media guide on The Biggest Scandal of the last 50 Years

Photos by Janaka Sri Jayalath, TVE Asia Pacific

4 Responses to “A Silent Emergency: More television sets than toilets!”

  1. Darryl D'Monte Says:

    Dear Nalaka

    It’s wonderful how stray events converge, at times! Sanitation is still a taboo in the media, and WASH is trying to make amends. But it needs the concerted efforts of many more journalists to spread the word. Few of us are aware of the nexus between sanitation and health.

  2. John Oldfield Says:

    Yay. What a great post on sanitation, the unloved stepchild of the safe drinking water challenge. I am thinking of launching a contest: which U.S. presidential candidate will first use the word “diarrhea” in a sentence properly, and truly incorporate the world’s sanitation problem into his/her political platform? Keep up the good work.


  3. Dilrukshi Says:

    I wish you will retain your blog for pleasure’s sake but mainstream some of your writing.
    It was indeed a great read, and I cannot but regret the fact that most of our so called mainstream health and environment writers (as they classify themselves) do not bother to check out simple stories as they handle jargon and statistics! The result is that often, the touching stories go missing!!!

  4. Moving Images Says:

    Thanks, Dilrukshi, but I’m now a refugee from the mainstream media (or MSM, as it is now beginning to be called!). Been there, done that…and found it was too restrictive. I have far fewer eye balls coming to this blog than an MSM offering, but at this point in my career, I value quality engagement not blind numbers. Like the engagement I’m having with you and other regular visitors to my blog. I’m enriched by all of you guys. Thanks! — Nalaka Gunawardene

    PS: Writing for pleasure is the only kind of writing we should be doing…

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