Hard Times: Give us more cars and less traffic!

In July 2007, we featured an interesting new film called Faecal Attraction. It probed the link between sewage disposal and river water pollution in India — specifically, the River Yamuna, part of the massive Indo-Gangetic river system.

Now the intrepid film-maker Pradip Saha has taken on another big, messy subject that has even bigger vested interests: the auto industry and its contribution to worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and public health in metropolitan India, especially the capital Delhi.

The film couldn’t have come at a better (worse?) time. India’s Tata Motors will be unveiling their people’s car, priced at Indian Rupees 100,000 (US$ 2,600 approx) on 10 January 2008 at Auto Expo in New Delhi.

“A car priced at hundred thousand Indian Rupees means a lot in terms of urban planning, urban life,” says Pradip, who is also the editor of Down to Earth magazine on science and environment. “Roads are already clogged, winter air is thick with SOX and NOX, our cities will be swarming with small cars.”

He says a few gunfights have already taken place in Delhi between neighbours over claims on parking space. Automobile industry has made urban space pretty absurd.

Pradip Saha Courtesy CSE India
Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Yet, he adds, any opposition to the introduction of these swarming small cars on account of increasing traffic congestion and pollution has been termed by the car maker and their friends as ‘elitist’. “This car maker has positioned itself as the agent of liberation, where we all have cars. Kink has no boundary.”

So Pradip decided to take the issue head on, making fun of a very serious situation.

Here’s the story behind the film, in Pradip Saha’s own words:

I was invited for an art residency by Khoj, an international artist’s association in Delhi. The brief was to create a public artwork with urban ecological concern.

I decided to do something on automobiles. My initial response was to respond to the way automobiles are sold, playing with desire. I also find certain policy issues related to automobile use pretty kinky. For example, when the auto bosses complain to highest financial authority about slump in auto sale, the highest financial authority calls the bank bosses to make car loans easy. Isn’t it kinky? I was thinking of pushing these kinks and business of desire a bit and create pornography that has automobiles as characters.

I made two. But wasn’t sure about putting them in public as kids will be seeing them too. I have been talking a few friends to create a website of automobile porns, mimicking standard porn site sensibilities.

So I turned to another format. I created a fake news TV channel called HARD TIMES, and went to the road interviewing drivers and riders in cars stuck in traffic jam in Delhi. The style is a take on News TV style, where they stick a microphone down your throat on any occasion, pretending a democratic format that generates peoples’ voice.

I did the same, with 2 basic questions: What is the reason of traffic jam? and How can we solve traffic jam? I edited 5.50 minutes video, and showed it as a loop in Connaught place, on the pavement on a large plasma screen. It also had an accompanying LED display board, a la, railway station information system, that went on giving out important numbers related to absurdity of automobile use in the city. This was a loop too.

Ultra low-cost small cars — such as the much-hyped models being planned by the Tatas and other carmakers — can mean big trouble for India, unless the country makes drastic policy changes. A new study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) , released in October 2007, said the influx of these cars would drive public transport and two-wheelers off the roads and greatly increase urban congestion and pollution.

Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Read CSE’s Down to Earth cover story on 15 October 2007: Small car revolution: Who cares about congestion, pollution

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Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die!

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My post last week on the Maldives on the frontline of climate change reminds me that I have been covering this story for the better part of 20 years. I have just located this photo from the depths of my personal image collection.

I first visited the Maldives in 1988, which was within months of the Indian Ocean archipelago nation suffering from a massive storm surge in 1987. Although the damage was minimal, the experience was a forceful reminder of how vulnerable the Maldives can be to even a small rise in sea levels – this is what prompted the low lying nation to take up the issue internationally.

In November 1989, the Maldives hosted the first ever small states conference on sea level rise, held at the Kurumba island resort.

It was also one of the earliest international gatherings on this issue, which was to gain public interest and momentum in the years that followed. Among the participants were delegates from practically all the small states in different parts of the world (defined as those with less than 1 million population), and scientists from disciplines such as oceanography, climatology, meteorology and geology.

This was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist. I was then a roving South Asian correspondent for Asia Technology, a popular monthly on Asian science and technology published from Hong Kong (which, alas, folded up in 1991) – there’s nothing online as it was in the pre-web era!

The conference had technical sessions where experts debated scenarios and implications, and a political segment where delegations made their official statements. In the end, they issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue.

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Some 18 years later, I’m still eager but not so young – and I’ve covered more than my share of international environmental conferences to know that they can’t save the world. At least not on their own.

But many serve a useful function in rallying around concerned parties, helping them to agree on advocacy positions. Progress at inter-governmental level can be painfully slow and incremental. Sustaining public and media interest is one way to keep pressure on the endlessly bickering governments.

Following the November 1989 conference, small island states played a key role in negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992. This is the precursor to Kyoto, Bali and other processes that are now very much in the news.

The Maldivian hosts knew that scientists and officials alone could not send out a powerful message to the world on what climate change means to low lying islands of the world – many of them no more than a few feet above sea level.

So on the last day evening, we were all taken to the Maldivian capital of Male, where we saw a demonstration and meeting held by the school children and ordinary people. To me, at least, this was the most striking moment of the whole week.

Leading up to this, I had been listening to competent experts and concerned officials talk about impacts, scenarios and mitigation measures for several days. Based on my notes and interviews, I filed several stories that captured highlights.

But unless I go back to my personal archives and look up those stories, I can no longer remember what I wrote. My lingering memories of this event are in these images, showing school children telling delegates – and the world – what it means to be living on the front lines of climate change impact.

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Then newly formed Maldivian environmental organisation Bluepeace was also part of the demonstration:

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I worked for several years as a science and technology reporter. I was trained to gather, process and present facts and, preferably, expert opinion. But over the years I have realised that while hard facts and expert opinions are necessary, these tell only one part of complex stories we cover.

We need to bring in the human face of our stories — how ordinary children, women and men feel about issues and how they react to situations. This is why I now argue that we should not allow the human face of climate change to be lost in our well-meaning technical and economic discussions about climate change mitigation and adaptation.

We can cover carbon neutrality, zero emissions and common but differentiated responsibilities for all we like, but if we don’t pause to listen to these little voices from the waves – from the frontlines that are already feeling the heat – we will miss the bigger picture of what climate change is all about.

Dec 2007: Road to Bali – Beware of ‘Bad Weather Friends’

Photos by Nalaka Gunawardene, Male island, November 1989

Creating news needlessly – or covering news needlessly?

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This came in a few days ago – as part of my daily diet of emailed Calvin and Hobbes comic strips sent free by Go Comics.

It reminded me of our South Asian governments and many 24/7 news channels who sound just like Calvin.

Governments – at least in popularity-conscious democracies – are constantly trying to create news, even when there is nothing new, true or interesting (the triple test for news). There’s a lot more rhetoric, plans and claims than actual accomplishments.

TV news channels, having to fill 24 hours of the day, cover news needlessly and in endless repetitions and detail. (By the way, covering news needlessly is an irreverent expansion of the abbreviation CNN!).

Actually, I shouldn’t compare either entity with the smart six-year-old Calvin. He is a great deal more interesting on an on-going basis than most of our governments and much of our news media.

I’m a long-standing fan of the comic – and followed it while Bill Watterson was still drawing them from 1985 to 1995. It was a sad day indeed when he decided on 31 December 1995 not to draw any more Calvin and Hobbes.

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AlertNet for Journalists: Rough guide to disasters and ‘alms bazaar’

Journalists are among the first responders to disasters and conflicts that break out without notice. They have to gather information from ‘ground zero’, process it and disseminate as rapidly and accurately as possible.

Easier said than done – especially when there’s more than the usual level of chaos, confusion and consternation. The multitude of humanitarian workers and their agencies who rush to such situations – to provide much-needed rescue, relief and recovery support – don’t always make life easier for journalists.

Yet they need each other. They just have to find better ways to work together. This is the central theme of our just-released book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book – the entire book is now available online for free download.

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One of the appendices to the book was contributed by Emma Batha of Reuters who talked about Reuters AlertNet for Journalists.

AlertNet for Journalists is “a set of free online tools designed to help journalists cover conflicts and disasters. The resources include crisis briefings, country statistics and aid agency contacts.”

It is part of Reuters AlertNet, a non-profit humanitarian news network based around a popular website, set up in 1997 by the Reuters Foundation. It aims to keep relief professionals and the wider public up-to-date on humanitarian emergencies around the globe.

Here’s a short video that AlertNet has just placed on YouTube – their first film to be thus offered:

It’s good to see more humanitarian and disaster related organisations engaging the YouTube. I wrote in October 2007 about UN-ISDR taking the plunge, placing some of its videos on a YouTube channel.

Read Emma Batha’s contribution to Communicating Disasters: Reuters AlertNet for Journalists

Return to Paradise: Maldives on the frontline of climate change

Related blog post: 6 Jan 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die

Mariyam Niuma - photo by TVEAP

All of us at TVE Asia Pacific are missing Mariyam Niuma.

This bubbly, happy-go-lucky intern returns to her native Maldives this week after working with us for over a year as a programme assistant. She plans to spend more time with her family, and explore work opportunities in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of 370,000 people.

Niuma, in her early 20s, applied for a staff position in late 2006. Among other things, she came with skill and dexterity in graphic design, web research and English proficiency — always useful for a regional communication organisation like ourselves.

“I want to learn as much as I can how a non-profit organisation works,” she told as at the recruitment interview. She had plans of taking the knowledge and skills back to her home atoll, hoping to make life better for her people.

I hope she found what she was looking for. We found in her an energetic young person with good attitude – one who could be challenged to work on tough (and sometimes tedious) tasks on a regular basis.

“The last year has been a very challenging and fulfilling year for me, and being at TVEAP helped a lot,” she wrote in an email on her last day at work. “I will miss you all and being a part of you and will always remember the good times and everything I have learnt here both professionally and personally.”

Some months into her internship, Niuma gave us a presentation on her home country, home atoll and life at home. To many outsiders, Maldives evokes images of palm-fringed sandy beaches, shallow seas of an exquisitely azure blue, high end resorts, crystal clear blue waters for diving…and plenty of sunshine all the year round. (Image shows Kurumba resort, Maldives.)

Well, all that’s true as widely advertised. But Maldives is a whole lot more – a history going back to at least 1,500 BC, distinctive island culture, and a nation that is struggling to reconcile tradition with modernity. Divehi, the Maldivian language, contributed the word “atoll” (a ring-shaped coral reef) to the English language.

The former British protectorate, which became independent in 1965 and a republic in 1968, has a pro-democracy movement sustained over the past few years. If such political turbulences create a sense of uncertainty in the minds of Maldivians about their future, it’s only one source of concern.

They also have to worry about whether their nation would have a collective future. That’s because of climate change that scientists now confirm are underway, aggravated by human action.

Most of the 1,200 islands in the Maldives are no more than 1m (3 feet) above sea level. Even a modest rise in sea levels could inundate these lands. Within 100 years the Maldives could become uninhabitable.

Time is indeed running out for Niuma and her country — as this poster produced by The Body Shop reminds us.

Time is running out...and not just for the Maldives

In 1987 and 1991 storm surges flooded a large number of islands, including one-third of the capital where one-quarter of the country’s population lives. Unusually high waves forced the international airport to be closed, causing great damage to tourism and constraining emergency relief operations. On 26 December 2004, the Asian tsunami battered the Maldives, forcing the evacuation of 13 of its 200 inhabited islands. These incidents indicate how vulnerable the islands are to wave action.

Maldives was among the first countries in the world to raise climate change as a serious issue at the United Nations. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom raised the alarm back in 1987, when most people had not even realised the problem and scientific evidence was just beginning to come in.

The Maldives did more than raise the issue. The country played a lead role in rallying around other small island states worldwide that would be among the first to be impacted when sea levels rise due to thermal expansion and melting of polar ice.

In November 1989, the Maldives hosted the first ever small states conference on sea level rise, which was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist.

The conference issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue. The small island states played a key role in negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992. This is the precursor to Kyoto, Bali and other processes that are now very much in the news.

Just a few weeks ago, in mid November 2007, the Maldives once again hosted representatives from small island states to discuss climate change. Eighteen years after the original meeting, the subject is no longer a fringe concern; it’s now on everybody’s agenda.

Maldives from the air: tiny specs in the ocean

The meeting urged the the human dimension of global climate change to be included in the agenda of UN Climate Change Summit in Bali (December 2007), and sought the international community’s commitment “to protect people, planet and prosperity by taking urgent action to stabilize the global climate change”.

This time, the Male’ Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change called for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to assess the human rights implications of climate change and “to conduct a study into the effects of climate change on the full enjoyment of human rights”. It requested the UN Human Rights Council to convene in March 2009 a debate on human rights and climate change.

I wasn’t at the November 2007 Male meeting, but was glad that the meeting stressed the need for adding a human face to the complex, nuanced challenge of climate change. This resonates very much with my own experience.

Read my April 2007 blog post: Wanted – human face of climate change

Mariyam Niuma takes me a bit closer to the realities of what climate change means to communities living on the frontline. Unlike Niuma, who is web savvy and connected with the wider world, many are blissfully unaware of the problem.

Our challenge is to bring their voices, stories and aspirations to the global news agenda and the myriad discussions now underway searching for solutions.

I hope someday we can work with Niuma again — perhaps amplifying her story in moving images.

Nov 2007 blog post: True people power needed to fight climate change

Related blog post: 6 Jan 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die

Photos of Mariyam Niuma courtesy Manori Wijesekera of TVEAP