Mekong: A river to watch as climate change impacts Asia’s water tower

Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific
Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific
The Greater Himalaya region is known as the water tower of Asia: the continent’s nine largest rivers emerging from its ice-capped mountains provide 1.5 billion people with water and 3 billion people with their food and power.

With more ice stored here than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic, the region has even been called the earth’s third pole. But the ice fields of the Himalayas are melting, and at a faster pace than anywhere else on the planet.

A river that is going to be affected is the Mekong – one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. TVE Asia Pacific has just produced a short film looking at how current and anticipated environmental changes could impact water users in the six countries of Southeast Asia which share its waters. We released it online this week, just in time for World Water Day 2009, March 22.

Mekong: Watch that River!

Along its journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), the Mekong nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path. Starting in the Tibetan highlands, it flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined. The basin supports more than 65 million people who share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

The Mekong has sustained life for thousands of years. But growing human demands are slowly building up environmental pressures on the river. A new study, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), cautions that climate change could add to this in the coming years.

Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong
Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong
The study, carried out under a project named “Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources”, was headed by Dr Mukand Babel at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok. It probed how climate change can impact the river from the highlands to the delta….affecting the survival and prosperity of millions.

Dr Babel says on the film: “Climate change would affect…the amount of rainfall which is received. Under climate change conditions, we expect less rainfall to be observed and that would bring less flows in the river which would affect the water users in the downstream areas.”

He adds: “At the same time, the sea level rise which is an associated impact of climate change, would bring more sea water intrusion into the river systems and groundwater systems in the delta in Vietnam.”

Salt water could go upstream by 60 to 70 kilometres, degrading the land and water in the Mekong delta. This would add to pressures already coming from growing human numbers, expanding economies and disappearing forests.

So the Mekong will be affected at both ends, by different processes that are triggered by climate change.

To find out how these changes could affect the Mekong’s millions, my colleagues filmed in two
‘ecological hot spots’ in the river basin identified by the study: the Upper Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong, and the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia.

The UNEP-AIT study recommends Mekong river countries to improve how they manage their water and land. This needs better policies, institutions and systems.

Dr. Young-Woo Park, Regional Director, UNEP, says on the film: “Countries sharing the Mekong river…have to act together and they have to develop the policies on how to conserve and how to conserve the Mekong river and also how to properly manage the Mekong river.”

The study found the Mekong river basin ‘moderately vulnerable’ to environmental changes. There aren’t any major water shortages in this river basin as yet. For now, the Mekong is holding up despite many pressures.
But all this can change if less water is flowing down the river and the demand for water keeps growing.

That’s why we named this film ‘Mekong: Watch that River!’

Wanted: New Arthur C Clarkes of the 21st Century!

The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008)
The legend lives on: Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008) - photos by Rohan de Silva

Today we mark the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. Exactly one year ago, when he passed away aged 90, I was thrust into a media frenzy. I’d been Sir Arthur’s research assistant and, in later years, his media spokesman and in the hours and days following his death, the family asked me to continue that role.

This blog recorded my experiences and emotions as they happened (see several posts in the latter half of March 2008). A year later, all of us who worked closely with him still miss Sir Arthur, but I can now take a more detached, longer-term view. And that’s what I’ve just done.

In an op ed essay published today in Groundviews website, I argue that sparking imagination and nurturing innovation are the best ways in which Sri Lanka can cherish Sir Arthur’s memory in the land he called home for half a century.

Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it is fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who invented the communications satellite and inspired the World Wide Web.

A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint
A life of no regrets...except for a minor complaint
In my essay, I suggested: “Instead of dabbling in these banalities, Sri Lanka should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among its youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke what he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!”

Easier said than done. In fact, in a country like Sri Lanka that is still partly feudal, insular and stubbornly clinging on to the past instead of facing the present and future, this becomes formidable. This is why I noted: “But can imagination and innovation take root unless we break free from the shackles of orthodoxy? For transformative change to happen, we will need to rethink certain aspects of our education, bureaucracy, social hierarchies and culture. Are we willing and able to attempt these?”

I then discuss some of the key challenges involved in nurturing imagination and innovation. I end my essay with these words: “Let’s not kid ourselves: sparking imagination and innovation is much harder than launching a gleaming new satellite in Sir Arthur’s name. But the rewards would also be greater: if we get it right this time, Sri Lanka can finally take its rightful place in the 21st century.”

Within hours of its online publication, the essay has attracted several comments and a discussion is evolving. Just what Sir Arthur would have liked to see happen…

Read the full essay, and join the discussion at Groundviews

Moving images blog, two years on: The journey continues…

Blogs put ME back into MEdia...
Blogs put ME back into MEdia...
The Moving Images blog completes two years today. So we pause briefly to look back – and forward.

I launched the blog with two posts from near-freezing Washington DC on 17 March 2007, while participating in the DC Environmental Film Festival. Both concerned my own offering to the festival: Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues, product of monthly filming with 8 survivor families in 4 countries for nearly one year after the Asian tsunami.

Since then, this blog’s own journey has continued: in 24 months, we have produced 342 posts in 134 categories and with 562 tags. These elicited a total of 622 comments from readers who came from all walks of life, and all parts of the world. To the end of 16 March 2009, I received a cumulative total of slightly over 246,900 page visits. I now average 500 – 600 visits a day.

I share my blogging journey with these readers who have enriched it in various ways. Some commented under their own names; others used pseudonyms. Some left email details; others none. A few have actually suggested stories that I later wrote up as blog posts. I don’t know most of my readers in person, and have only met them online. As this blog enters its 25th month, I thank them all. You’ve kept me going in a particularly tough time in the world…and in my personal life.

Moving Images wasn’t my first blog – in late 2006 I had started another blog called Communicating Majority World under the name ‘Lost Alien’, which I somehow didn’t sustain for more than a few weeks and a handful of posts. For reasons that I can no longer quite recall, the Lost Alien abandoned his original blog – and migrated over here!

When I started Moving Images, I was driven by a simple motive: to discuss and reflect on the many and varied topics and subjects that interest me professionally. In one way or another, these fall into the area of communicating science, development and environment to the non-specialist public. Because my work at TVE Asia Pacific involves using television and video for this purpose, there is a bias on moving images in many things I do.

But by design, this is not an official blog of TVE Asia Pacific, or any other organisation that I am associated with. In fact, I regularly express here views that I cannot say wearing any of these hats — because we live in a world where most people still react not just to the song, but also the singer (and can’t separate the two).

Are we there yet? No!
Are we there yet? No!
So this blog is unashamedly, intentionally self-centred: it puts ME back in Media. I make no apologies for speaking my mind on a variety of topics, and for returning to some issues that I’m passionate about.

After 22 years in journalism, broadcasting or communicating development, I find I have sufficient perspective in which to anchor my thoughts, and to express my views in a way, I hope, interests and engages readers. Like the ancient Greeks, I try to ask the right questions – even when I don’t always know or get the right answers. And I have more than a few stories to spice up the narrative.

I’m well aware of the inherent danger of combining writer-editor-publisher all in one: personal blogs don’t always operate under the usual checks and balances that we expect and presume in the more structured media outlets (whether they are in the mainstream or new media spheres). On more than one occasion, I’ve written impulsively – in frustration, anger or elation, and sometimes on the run. Thanks to the training in my news reporter days, I can still churn out readable prose fast. And only once in all these 24 months and 342 posts have I regretted rushing to publish (so, using my absolute discretion as the media tycoon of this blog, I pulled it down).

Do I see myself as a citizen journalist? Yes and no. I don’t report news, and only very occasionally write on latest developments (or breaking news, as it’s now called). I see myself more as a citizen commentator – the op ed equivalent in the new media domain. Yes, I do occasionally report from large conferences that I attend as a speaker or panelist. But I have found how demanding it is to blog from events while keeping up with everything that is going on.

Do I see myself as a Sri Lankan blogger? Not really. Scanning the 342 blog posts I’ve written, I can count only a two dozen that have an appreciable reference to Sri Lanka. This is not because I’m aloof or disengaged; I have simply set a framework for myself that goes well beyond the country of my residence and social/cultural anchor.

Another reason for this intentional lack of geographical focus is that besides this blog, I regularly write op ed essays for other online outlets like Groundviews, and MediaHelpingMedia, and print news magazines like Montage. I use these platforms for commenting on Sri Lankan issues that interest or concern me.

I find it a bit incongruous that we who use the new media tools of web 2.0 – which signify the end of old geography – must contain ourselves to geographical or cultural cocoons. Thus, while I sometimes join gatherings of bloggers based in Sri Lanka, and share concerns for freedom of expression, I have consciously avoided joining Kottu, the leading aggregator of Sri Lankan blogs.

gvo-logo-lgAnd I get more than a little miffed when the excellent aggregation service Global Voices constantly labels me as a Sri Lankan voice (with a map of Lanka to boot!) whenever they helpfully flag my blog posts for wider attention. I have privately discussed this with GV’s South Asia coordinator who says their current tagging and categorisation do not allow anything else. Is this an example a new media platforms being trapped in an old media mindset?

If you really must pin me down to some place, call me a South Asian (or, as my friends at Himal would like to write it, Southasian).

Do I see myself as a new media activist?
I’m not sure. I’m not a geek, and have no great knowledge or insights on the back-end technologies that make all this possible. My interest is in how the new media tools shapes societies, cultures and politics in emerging Asia. Those braver and smarter than me are actually innovating and improvising new media tools for social activism. I just watch — and occasionally blog to critically cheerlead them. Mine is definitely the easy part…

Mainstream media...and bloggers
Mainstream media...and bloggers
On this blog, I place a higher premium on still and moving images. Regular readers know my fondness for cartoons, which I avidly search for and collect on a wide range of topics. In fact, I believe cartoonists are the best social and cultural commentators of our times – they say so much with such economy of words!

Similarly, I try to embed relevant online videos that I can find. Sometimes it takes me longer to scan YouTube and other platforms than to write the accompanying text for a blog post. And I get frustrated when WordPress does not allow embedding from certain online platforms like EngageMedia, a new Asia-based service that we have recently started to collaborate with.

As I travel around in Asia and Europe, and move across the sometimes overlapping circles of development, media and communications technology, I keep meeting readers who read and follow this blog. Some have never commented on any post; a few have chosen to write emails to me on specific matters.

This means some of the conversations inspired by this blog happen bilaterally — for example, film festival organisers have written asking me for contacts of specific film-makers whose work I have reviewed. Students often write to me seeking additional information or my own views. Long lost friends or associates have revived contact after stumbling upon this blog. I have no illusions of being famous, but it’s nice to stay engaged.

My policy on visitors’ comments is clearly stated in my intro page: “This is a moderated blog where I approve/disapprove the publication of readers’ comments to individual posts. I do allow all reasonable comments left by readers — including those that radically disagree with my own views. The basic rules of my moderation: I don’t publish comments that are outright libelous of individuals, or are so explicitly self-promotional bordering on spam.

Only once in the short history of this blog have I been threatened by someone whose conduct I questioned in the public interest. In late 2007, I wrote a hard-hitting comment on how certain media organisations are exploiting concerns surrounding climate change to their institutional advantage. I was standing by to publish their response, for the institution I named claims to promote public discussion and debate. None came my way, although some peer pressure was used, unsuccessfully, to make me remove the blog post. In mid 2008, when our paths accidentally crossed in a European capital, the individual concerned confronted me. I gave him a patient hearing, and reiterated my offer to publish his response in full. He insisted on my deleting the post (gosh, it must have hit a raw nerve!). He ended our unpleasant encounter saying: “If you lived in my jurisdiction, I would have sued you!”

There has never been a denial or rebuttal from this person or his institution on the substantive points in my blog post. But I was repeatedly told that my candid remarks are ‘not helpful’. Perhaps. But anyone who remotely believes in ‘illuminating debate’ would have engaged me on this blog, or theirs, or in a neutral forum (plenty exist).

Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation
Luckily, I've rarely faced this situation
Encouragingly, many others have done just that. This includes the reader who thinks I have an axe to grind with the BBC (I don’t, but I’m also not a fan of the ageing Auntie), and a few who feel I’ve been unkind to the fledgling global newscaster Al Jazeera English.

Then there are those who assume that I hate state-owned, so-called public broadcasters (again, I don’t, although I question their conduct more rigorously because they are public-funded). In fact, I have sung praise of Burmese TV as a model public broadcaster, and maintained excellent relations with NHK and other public broadcasters in Asia. I’m regularly invited as a speaker or panelist at gatherings of mainstream broadcasters – where I express pretty much the same views as I do on this blog.

Some think I’m too harsh on the United Nations, especially UNICEF. Again, I’m a great believer and supporter of the UN’s ideals, but never hesitate to critique the public communication policies and practices of individual UN agencies. I like to think that the United Nations is bigger (and deeper) than the inflated egos of its senior officials. In fact, middle level officials and experts working in various UN agencies have privately commended me for keeping the spotlight on their agencies. During the two years of this blog, I have worked closely with UN-OCHA, UNEP and UNAIDS, and they have been pluralistic enough to engage me in the greater public interest.

I believe that it’s not just the UN, but the entire development sector, that needs to get its act together when it comes to communicating policies, practices and choices. Having occasionally (and luckily, only briefly) forayed into the charmed development circles, I realise how detached from reality, self-referential and inward looking many development professionals and their institutions are. Communication is often no more than self-promotional publicity for overambitious agency heads. I have watched how the sector has struggled to adjust to the new realities in media and communications technology. Sometimes I have ridiculed their worse attempts on this blog; more often than not, I have quietly worked with them in small groups or bilateral meetings trying to build their capacity to do things better with greater focus and impact.

I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!
I survived mediasaurus - and lived to tell the tale!
Precisely because I have access to various policy, development and research circles in Asia while (or despite?) being a blogger critiquing the same players, I exercise caution in quoting people or citing examples. Some meetings I attend discuss matters too sensitive for immediate publication; others operate on the Chatham House rule (generic points may be communicated, but without attribution). As a journalist, I’ve been trained to clarify what is on the record and what isn’t; in sourcing content for this blog, I follow the same principles.

Every writer, editor and publisher has her own agenda. Mine is fairly easy to discern, for example from the recurrent themes on this blog. These include: * humanising development communication (going beyond mere facts, figures, analysis and jargon); * demystifying and debunking self-serving development myths (for example, about community radio, or rural poverty); * practising what we preach (broadcasters addressing their own carbon emissions); * evolving more inclusive copyright policies (poverty and climate change as copyright free zones); and * engaging in simple, clear and effective communicating of science and technology in society.

For those who occasionally look for a hidden agenda, my only advice is: get a life. I write this blog for fun. I don’t set out to kick anyone – although I often get a kick out of receiving online or offline feedback.

And that’s my wish for the coming months and years: while I work hard to earn some honest bucks else where, may I continue to derive my kicks here. And if some of you also get a mental kick out of reading or commenting on this blog, that’s my bonus.

Since I remain open-minded and eager for new knowledge, my views on some topics and issues keep evolving over time. Although it’s tempting to go back and edit some of my earlier blog posts in the light of new knowledge or understanding, I refrain from doing so. And if that sometimes presents (minor) inconsistencies, I can only quote Walt Whitman in my defence:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Mixing oil and water: Media’s challenges in covering human security

Talking to the last drop: All streams flow to Istanbul?
Talking to the last drop: All streams flow to Istanbul?

The 5th World Water Forum opens in Istanbul, Turkey, today. It will be held in the historic city – a bridge between the east and west – from 16 to 22 March 2009.

Held every three years, the World Water Forum is the main water-related event in the world. It seeks to put water firmly on the international agenda with a view to fostering collaboration – not confrontation – in sharing and caring for the world’s finite supplies of the life-giving liquid. The forums bring together officials, researchers, activists and media to a few days in which they can drown in their own cacophony…well, almost.

I haven’t been to one of these mega-events – I almost did in 2003, when it was hosted by Kyoto, Japan. That forum was almost entirely eclipsed – as far as the media coverage was concerned – by the United States deciding to invade Iraq during the same week. This inspired me to write an op ed essay on oil, water and media which was syndicated by Panos Features and widely reproduced at the time in newspapers, magazines and even in a few activist and development publications. But six years later, it’s hard to locate it online, so I’m publishing it here, unedited, exactly as I wrote in that eventful week in mid March 2003:

Oil on water: will the media get this Big Story?

By Nalaka Gunawardene: 20 March 2003

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” Ismail Serageldin, an eminent Egyptian architect and planner, made this remark in 1995 when he was vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank.

Well, we are in that new century now, but old habits die hard. The war in Iraq has been fuelled by oil interests, and – starting at the time it did, on March 20 –effectively sidelined global talks to secure freshwater for all.

Clean water, anyone?
Clean water, anyone?
Even as the United States launched its attack on the country that sits on the world’s second largest oil reserve, the Third World Water Forum was in progress at the Japanese cities of Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka. The event, running from March 16 to 23, is this year’s biggest international conference on a sustainable development issue and involved hundreds of government and civil society representatives trying to resolve one of the major survival issues of our time: equitably sharing the world’s finite freshwater resources for our homes, farms and factories.

The two processes cannot be more different. One aims to use force while the other seeks to foster co-operation among nations to cope with water scarcity. The increasingly isolated United States has abandoned the United Nations process in its single-minded determination to disarm Iraq, a nation it considers a major threat to peace and security. Meanwhile in Kyoto, the nations of the world – including, but not led by, the United States – were discussing an issue that is far more central to humanity’s security. It has the full blessings of the UN, which has designated 2003 the International Year of Freshwater.

Yet the water forum seems hardly newsworthy to the major news organisations that are preoccupied with war. For months, the global television networks were gearing up for Iraq war coverage. The first Gulf War helped globalise CNN, and this time around, there are other international and regional channels competing for the eye balls. Locked in a battle for dominant market share, CNN International and BBC World are trying to outdo each other in covering the conflict exhaustively — and to the exclusion of everything else. In the do-or-die media marketplace, ‘soft issues’ such as water are easily edged over by conflict. As cynical news editors will confirm, if it bleeds, it leads.

The notions of national and global ‘security’ – on which the Iraq war is being waged – are relics of the Cold War that are completely out of sync with today’s global realities. Who says we have entered the 21st century?

In the closing decade of the last century, as the world grappled with one crisis after another – ranging from famine and drought to global warming and HIV/AIDS – the notion of ‘security’ was radically redefined to include ecological and social dimensions. What is now termed ‘human security’ is concerned not so much with weapons as with basic human dignity and survival. As first articulated in the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report in 1994, human security includes safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression, as well as protection from sudden and harmful disruptions in the patterns of daily life.

Mahbub ul Haq
Mahbub ul Haq
The rationale for this was brilliantly summed up by the late Mahbub ul Haq, former Finance Minister of Pakistan and architect of the Human Development Index: “If people are sleeping on pavements, ministers have no business shopping for modern jets and howitzers. While children suffocate in windowless classrooms, generals go about in their air-conditioned jeeps. Nations might accumulate all the weaponry they want, but they have no strength when their people starve…”

A world in which four out of every ten people live in areas of water scarcity is not secure. And if urgent action is not taken, this will increase to two thirds of humanity by 2005. Ensuring water quality is as important as basic access: preventable diarrhoeal diseases – including cholera and dysentery — kill more than seven million children every year. That is 6,000 deaths every day.

James P Grant
James P Grant
James Grant, former executive director of UNICEF, once used a powerful metaphor to describe this scandalous situation: it was as if several jumbo jets full of children were crashing everyday – and nobody took any notice.

If the media are obsessed with death and destruction, why aren’t these numbers registering on their radars? Why is it that silent emergencies forever remain ignored or are only superficially covered? Even statistics don’t set the media agenda: for example, according to the UN, twice as many people are still dying from diarrhoeal diseases as from HIV/AIDS in China, India and Indonesia. But the international donors and media assign far more importance to HIV than to clean water.

No other factor can distort reality as oil. Oil comes on top of water both in the physical world, and in the murky world of global politics. Our collective dependence on petroleum immediately ensures the Iraq war a disproportionately high rank in public and media concerns.

It’s not just the United States that is addicted to oil – we all are. Addicts tend to lose sight of the cost of their dependence, as we have. On 24 March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on in Prince William Sound in Alaska and a fifth of its 1.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the sea, causing massive damage to over 3,800 km of shoreline. Investigations implicated its captain for grossly neglecting duty. Shortly afterwards, Greenpeace ran a major advertising campaign with the headline: “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

Exxon Valdez: Drunken driving!
Exxon Valdez: Drunken driving!
Greenpeace continued: “It would be easy to blame the Valdez oil spill on one man. Or one company. Or even one industry. Too easy. Because the truth is, the spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel.”

A nation drunk on oil is waging a war that has more to do with oil than anything else. Our news media are behaving just like cheer-leaders.

War is undoubtedly a big story. But so should be water. One in six humans does not have safe drinking water, and one third of humankind lacks adequate sanitation. We may be living on the Blue Planet, but the waters are muddy and life-threatening to billions.

For sure, a bunch of people huddling together in three Japanese cities won’t solve this crisis overnight. But unless knowledge and skills are shared, and a political commitment is secured, safe water for all will forever remain a pipe dream.

Will it take a full-scale war over water in one of the flashpoints around the world for the military-industrial-media complex take sufficient interest in this survival issue? (That might happen sooner than we suspect.)

It’s ironic that the World Water Forum was undermined by the Iraq war breaking out in the very same week. Washington has now poured oil over everybody’s water.

[Nalaka Gunawardene is an award-winning Sri Lankan science writer, journalist and columnist. He heads TVE Asia Pacific, a regional media organisation working on sustainable development issues, and is on the board of Panos South Asia. The views expressed here are his own.]

Crisis of Credit: The story of bright, greedy bankers with no common sense…

A complex crisis made simple...
A complex crisis made simple...

At the height of the Cold War, some of the best brains in both the United States and the now extinct USSR worked for their respective nation’s nuclear weapons development and maintenance work. They were basically driven by Mutually Assured Destruction, a doctrine of military strategy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two opposing sides would effectively result in the destruction of both the attacker and the defender. It was appropriately abbreviated as M.A.D.

The men (it was mostly if not entirely male) with these deadly toys have been described as very smart people with no common sense. They’ve been the subject of much study, commentary and satire — Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy film Dr Strangelove among them.

Where would very smart men with no common sense (and few, if any, scruples) find work in the post Cold War period? Looks like some of them went into banking!

How else could we explain the deadly games played by bankers that triggered the credit crisis which has snowballed into a global economic recession affecting us all?

Sub-prime mortgages, collateralised debt obligations, frozen credit markets and credit default swaps. These terms are now being bandied around but a year ago, few had heard of them and even now, how many of us non-bankers understand what they mean?

Aren’t they the weapons of mass destruction of our times? While the nukes were well guarded and their use was tightly controlled (with only a few near misses over decades), where was regulatory oversight when bankers accumulated toxic credit over time?

In September 2008, I wrote a blog called Financial Meltdown: Putting pieces together of a gigantic whodunnit with links to some current affairs documentaries that tried to explain what was happening. In December 2008, I named the American blogger, investigative journalist and film-maker Danny Schechter as Moving Images Person of the Year for his relentless, now prophetic work cautioning about the coming credit crisis from years ago.

Now, design artist Jonathan Jarvis has come up with a brilliant animation that tells the ‘Short and Simple Story of the Credit Crisis’.

Watch it on YouTube: Crisis of Credit, part 1 of 2

Crisis of Credit, part 2 of 2

Here’s his description:
The goal of giving form to a complex situation like the credit crisis is to quickly supply the essence of the situation to those unfamiliar and uninitiated. This project was completed as part of my thesis work in the Media Design Program, a graduate studio at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

For more on his thesis work exploring the use of new media to make sense of a increasingly complex world, visit

See also: Prudent Banking 101: A lesson from Mary Poppins

Missing Mothers: How acronyms and jargon can kill innocent women

iwd_5“This year alone, more than 500,000 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s one woman missing every minute of every day. We call these women ‘missing’ because their deaths could have been avoided. In fact, 80 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternal health services.

“We know where and how these women are dying, and we have the resources to prevent these deaths. Yet, maternal mortality is still one of the most neglected problems internationally.”

This sobering message from Unicef is worth reflecting upon as we mark another International Women’s Day.

Unfortunately, critical issues like these often don’t make the news – or worse, are relegated to the background as inevitable. As Joseph Stalin said in a different context, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a mere statistic.

The challenge to the development community is to go beyond simply counting deaths in cold, clinical terms. UNICEF has recently released a two minute video, “Missing Mothers” as a tool for international development professionals to use in raising awareness of the issue of mothers dying needlessly.

Having a baby is both a very natural process and a joyous occasion for the parents and extended family concerned. Yet having a baby still remains one of the biggest health risks for millions of women worldwide.

Time to make missing women count...
Time to make missing women count...
As Unicef’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report reminded us recently, 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the United States. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.

The largest number of maternal deaths in the world is in South Asia. In India alone, an estimated 141,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth. Recently, my Indian journalist friend Kalpana Sharma wrote a perceptive column on this topic in The Hindu newspaper.

She noted: “The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed.”

The Missing Women video suggests to activists and campaigners that action can start with five steps: 1. Educate girls, young women and yourself; 2. Respect their rights; 3. Empower them to participate; 4. Invest in maternal health; 5. Protect against violence and abuse. The Unicef website, meanwhile, lists 10 ways in which concerned individuals can make a difference.

All very commendable and necessary — but not sufficient. With all the good intentions in the world, Unicef’s experts and officials come across as, well, detached and geeky. They don’t connect well enough to the real world people whose needs and interests they are genuinely trying to serve. Their messages are lost somewhere in their precise terms, jargon and endless acronyms.

Just take, for example, the very phrase of maternal mortality itself. Precise but also very stiff and dry. Who outside the medical and development circles uses such terms in conversation? When I write or make films about the issue, I prefer to call it ‘mothers dying needlessly while having babies’. Yes, it’s more wordy and perhaps less exacting. But most ordinary people would get what I’m talking about.

If the jargon-ridden language reads dry in text, it completely puts off people when they watch such words being spoken on video. Such films may pander to the Narcissism of Unicef mandarins, but they completely flop in terms of public communication and engagement.

This is the same point I made in October 2008 when commenting on the Unicef-inspired first Global Handwashing Day: “Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.”

Jim Grant’s deputy, journalist Tarzie Vittachi, who came over to the UN children’s agency after a stint at the UN population fund, used to say: “Governments don’t have babies; people do”. We might extend that to: inter-governmental agencies don’t have babies; real women do. That may be why Unicef insists on delivering its life-saving messages so riddled in politically and scientifically correct, but so sterile language.

Unicef’s YouTube channel has a number of short videos related to what they insist on calling maternal mortality. Here’s an example where Unicef’s Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama says it’s really an unconscionable number of deaths, and a human tragedy on a massive scale:

MDG5: Save Our Moms!
MDG5: Save Our Moms!
Reducing by three quarters the number of mothers dying needlessly while having babies is one of the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, the holy grail in international development since the United Nations adopted these in 2000, setting 2015 as the target date.

We have now passed the half way mark, but progress has been patchy and unimpressive. And it will remain so as long as the UN agencies and other development players insist on peddling jargon and acronyms. Considering the issues of life and death involved here, we must view bad communication as a killer — joining the ranks of unsafe drinking water and violence against women and girls.

Writing an editorial for SciDev.Net in September 2005, I noted: “All development workers and UN officials should take a simple test: explain to the least technical person in your office the core message and relevance of your work. Many jargon-using, data-wielding, acronym-loving development workers would probably fail this test. But unless development-speak is translated into simpler language, the MDGs will remain a buzzword confined to development experts and activists.”

I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s time to bring back the spirits of Jim Grant and Tarzie Vittachi to Unicef to again humanise the agency so mired in its own ‘geekspeak’. The intellectual rigours of evidence-based, scientific analysis must be balanced with clarity and accessibility. It’s fine to be informed by science, but learn to say it simply, clearly and concisely.

The lives of half a million women and millions of children depend on it.

Channel News Asia at 10: Making of a pan-Asian news channel

Asian voice in a global village
Asian voice in a global village
“We’re the messenger for all the stories that might not have been told…that’s our job,” says Glenda Chong, the Shanghai-based China correspondent (and former anchor) of Channel NewsAsia (CNA), the Singapore-based Asian regional news broadcaster that just turned 10.

For a decade, CNA has covered Asia for Asians and the rest of the world. It has uncovered stories missed – or ignored – by other, global news channels. Just as important, it has also found the Asian voices and angles in mega stories originating from Asia that gripped the world’s attention — such as the outbreak of SARS, Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in Sichuan and Kashmir.

Started on 1 March 1999 and owned by Singapore’s MediaCorp, CNA is now a major Asian news broadcaster with programmes telecast to more than 20 Asian countries and territories. Visit CNA’s 10th anniversary website for a look back…and forward.

“In the early days, when we talked about a news channel from Singapore, you could cut the cynicism with a knife,” said Woon Tai Ho, managing director of MediaCorp News.

That was inevitable for any media venture anchored in Singapore, ranked currently at 144 out of 173 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. But CNA has shown that geography need not be destiny.

Asians telling their own story
Asians telling their own story
In 10 years, it has emerged as a primary source of news in Asia, and along the way, has picked up a plethora of high-profile awards — including two silver medals at the New York Festivals 2009 and three awards at Asia Television Awards 2008.

Channel News Asia turns 10 – article in Today newspaper, Singapore: 2 March 2009

Started as a business news channel at the tail end of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, CNA later evolved into a fully-fledged news and current affairs channel covering all facets, aspects and territories of Asia – the world’s largest region, home to half of humanity. Map showing CNA geographical coverage

Ironically, CNA enters double-digits chronicling the region once again in the midst of a financial crisis, this time of global proportions and repercussions.

Unlike Al Jazeera English (AJE), the global news channel launched from Qatar in November 2006, CNA has relied on Asian talent for anchoring and reporting. While AJE has shamelessly and desperately tried to ape the BBC, CNA has forged its own identity in offering a world class product.

Whereas AJE tries so hard to please its audiences in Europe and North America (is it so anxious for western acceptance?), CNA has focused its energies in telling the myriad stories of emerging Asia primarily for Asia’s upwardly mobile, burgeoning middle classes.

For example, when an interviewee gives his/her views in a language other than English, Channel NewsAsia does not voice-over the original audio with an anglo-saxon voice like other major news channels do. Instead, an English subtitle appears, preserving and complementing the original audio.

At TVE Asia Pacific, we have had a positive experience of engaging this regional broadcaster. In late 2005, we were looking for a broadcast partner to co-produce a documentary looking back at the first year after the Indian Ocean tsunami through the eyes of eight survivor families – in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – that we had tracked on video under the Children of Tsunami project. We had a mass of professionally and ethically filmed material, and a unique collection of stories we were keen to be amplified to the world.

When we approached Channel NewsAsia through a friend, they immediately welcomed the collaboration. They invested their time, resources and talent to edit Children of Tsunami: No More Tears, a half hour that distilled some of the stories that we had painstakingly captured for a year. No money changed hands. Legalities were kept to a minimum. CNA saw we had a story that was relevant and important for their viewers. They found the story authentic, as captured by local crews who spoke the language in each country and who lived through the traumas of the tsunami themselves (no ‘parachute film crews’ were involved). So CNA just did it — with none of the airs of pomposity and self importance that so characterise the BBC in any collaboration.

CNA producer Joanne Teoh Kheng Yau shared her experience in telling this story at a regional event we organised in December 2006. The full experience is now documented in a chapter in our book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears was first broadcast globally on Channel NewsAsia in the last week of December 2005 to mark the tsunami’s first anniversary with this intro: “Young survivors of the Asian tsunami let us into their lives to personalise the mass of statistics, aid pledges and recovery plans. ‘Children of Tsunami’ is a tapestry of intimate stories, woven by voices of individual and collective resilience, heroism and recovery.”

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears Part 1: