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.]

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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