Viterbo Memorandum by Greenaccord: Time to act on climate crisis is NOW!

Renaissance period Domus La Quercia, venue of Greenaccord 2009 forum

“We know the climate is changing, probably as a result of humanity’s pollution; species are disappearing fast; deforestation is rampant; over-fishing is rife; water shortages are increasing; resource consumption is growing and so is the world’s population.

“…If this catastrophe unfolds, historians will look back and ask how that was allowed to happen with so little media debate. They may wonder what stories journalists were telling while the world was transformed around them.”

Those words are not new. In fact, they were part of the statement of concern issued at the end of the First International Media Forum organised by Greenaccord of Italy and held in Rapolano, Siena, Italy, in late 2003. I was one of 100+ journalists from all over the world who signed that original “Green Accord” for Journalists.

This year’s internationally acclaimed British climate film The Age of Stupid is based on a similar premise. This ambitious drama-documentary-animation hybrid features an old man living in the climate devastated world of 2055 AD, watching the ‘archive’ news footage from 2008 — and asking: “Why didn’t we stop climate change while we had the chance?”

The 7th Greenaccord international forum, held in the central Italian city of Viterbo from 25 – 29 November 2009, has just ended calling upon world leaders to “draw a road map being a binding agreement for a total de-carbonization of world economy before 2050”.

Addressed to the UN climate conference opening in Copenhagen in a few days’ time, the forum’s final document – called the Viterbo Memorandum – urged that no more time be lost.

The Greenaccord forum’s theme this year was ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’. Over five days, some 130 of us from 55 countries – drawn from all continents – stayed at the historic residence of Domus La Quercia in Viterbo, discussing and debating about the challenges faces by our warming planet, and how we as communicators can make a difference. It is what I recently called the Ultimate Race between education and catastrophe.

The Viterbo Memorandum pledged: “On their own side, they (journalists and scientists) vow to cooperate in order to spread correct information on the risk related to climate change and to make aware the public opinion on the need of individual contribution to the solution of problems by modifying their own life style.”

The Memorandum is to be delivered in early December 2009 to Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel Peace Prize winning Chairman of the UN’s climate panel, the IPCC.

Professor Andrea Masullo, President of Greenaccord’s Scientific Committee, said: “I don’t want our children and grandchildren, in 2050, finding themselves on a planet inhabited by more than 9 billion people and devastated by climate change, re-reading the scientific reports of today…to ask themselves what we were thinking and why we did not do anything when everything that was going to happen was clear.”

He added: ”In recent years the changes are progressing much faster than expected in the fourth IPCC report. Nevertheless, it seems that Copenhagen will not come again to a final agreement. Many governments feel they can take initiatives costly and complicated the current economic crisis. ”

Launched in 2003, the Greenaccord Forums have emerged as one of the largest annual gatherings of environmental journalists, broadcasters and activists at global level. As an organisation, Greenaccord aims to be an international “virtual table” open to all professionals in information and communication who want to deepen understanding about environment and its protection with their work.

I have been returning to Greenaccord’s annual forums the first one in 2003 – and always return with my knowledge updated and friendships renewed. This year was no exception.

Photos courtesy Yu-Tzu Chiu and Greenaccord

Nalaka Gunawardene at Greenaccord 2009 - Photo by Yu-Tzu Chiu

When it comes to climate change, we are all Maldivians!

It was Woody Allen who said ‘Ninety per cent of life is just showing up’. Well, part of the remaining 10 per cent must involve waving our hands and speaking out in this increasingly attention-challenged world.

My organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, lacks both a travel budget and a promotional budget. So I need to be both resourceful and persevering when showcasing our work in the vast Asia Pacific region and beyond. I attempt this by turning myself into a one-man cheering squad for our work in the public interest. (If this makes me something of a self-promoter, so be it!).

I was very grateful when our friends in Greenaccord accommodated my last minute request to screen our latest short film Small Islands – Big Impact at their 7th international media forum in Viterbo, Italy, today. This is what I recently made in the Maldives, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to sea level rise.

I presented this at the end of the fourth day, soon after the gathering of 130 journalists and scientists from 55 countries had listened to 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change.

Here is what I said introducing the film:

Small and low lying island states are on the frontline of impact from climate change. That is why we made this film, so that we can highlight the plight of the Maldives in various climate related discussions around the world.

It is based on an exclusive interview that President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives gave me in August 2009. In this wide-ranging interview, he shared his concerns and visions for his island nation.

President Nasheed is an articulate, passionate climate witness on behalf of his endangered island nation of 325,000 people. The technocratic and amiable President is one of the youngest heads of state in the world today. Interestingly, he worked as a freelance journalist when he was in exile for several years, and remains very accessible to the international media.

As a journalist and broadcaster, I’ve been covering this story for over 20 years, from the late 1980s. I have seen how the vulnerability of small island states – like the Maldives – has risen up in the international discussions on climate. Sustained reporting by journalists has played a significant role in this process.

We have unfinished business. As President Nasheed says so emphatically, we are in this together. We need to work on coping and survival strategies.

When it comes to climate change, we are all Maldivians.

This is the second time a TVEAP film has been showcased at a Greenaccord event. In October 2006, the post-tsunami Asian environmental series The Greenbelt Reports was previewed at the 4th Greenaccord Forum.

Wanted, urgent: Next-Gen Jacque Cousteaus to be our tour guides to Planet Ocean!

Tony Fontes

As my Australian diver friend Valerie used to say, the trouble with many of us land-lubbers is that we have ‘no idea what’s going on in the sea that covers three quarters of our planet’.

Yet what we do – and don’t do – affects the fate of the sea and all its creatures and systems. That’s a big problem.

Take, for example, roral reefs. Among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet, they are sometimes called rainforests of the sea. And these rich and colourful habitats are now under siege from multiple pressures, ranging from indiscriminate fishing and tourism practices to global warming.

Yet, the coral reefs haven’t attracted the same kind of public concern and outcry as has the destruction of tropical rainforests. How come?

Is this a case of out of sight and out of mind for a majority of the world’s land-lubbers? This is what I asked Australian diver Tony Fontes, who has been a diver and dive instructor for 30 years, much of it at the largest reef of all – the Great Barrier Reef off the north-eastern coast of Australia.

“It sure is – and ideally, everyone should become a diver, so we can all see and feel the wonders of the reef,” he replied.

He added: “At a minimum, we have to do lots of awareness raising. This is why we need to bring back Jacques-Yves Cousteau!”

Tony was engaging journalists at the 7th Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held in Viterbo, Italy, from 25 – 29 November 2009.

This year’s theme is ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’, and Tony was one of 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled to the central Italian city from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change. Climate Witness is a global programme by WWF International to enable grassroots people to share their story of how climate change affects their lives and what they are doing to maintain a clean and healthy environment. All Climate Witness stories have been authenticated by independent scientists.

Great Barrier Reef: A planetary treasure under siege

Tony lives and works in Airlie Beach (Whitsundays) in Queensland, Australia. It’s a small seaside community right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Most of his time is spent underwater on training dives – he has clocked over 10,000 hours of professional diving. He generally dives many of the same sites over and over again.

This long and deep immersion in the marine realm gives him uncommon insights into the state of the reef – and it’s not a healthy or pretty picture.

He says: “Through personal observations as well as those by other divers, I have noted changes to the (marine) environment hat are most likely climate induced.”

Increase in coral bleaching is the most noticeable change. From a rare occurrence in the 1980s, it went on to become a regular summer event by the mid 1990s. The past decade has witnessed the largest coral bleaching events on record. And unlike in the past, these have led to large scale coral death and decay.

“Many popular dive sites have lost their lustre due to coral bleaching,” he says, pointing out that the reefs need up to 10 years to fully recover.

He adds: “However, with more bleaching events occurring every year, I wonder if the reefs will ever recover. Without the postcard reef scenes, many visitors are disappointed in their reef experience and are not likely to return.”

It’s not just warmer seas that affects the Great Barrier Reef. Occasional outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, marine pests who eat up the healthy reef, add pressure on the reef. In recent years, scientists have identified another threat – sediments, fertilisers and pesticides from agricultural run-off. This was investigated in Sally Ingleton’s 2003 film, Muddy Waters: Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef.

Listening to Tony reminded me of Muddy Waters, which journeys to the sugarcane plantations of northern Queensland and into an underwater world to find out what’s killing the reef and what can be done to save it. I was on the international jury of Japan Wildlife Film Festival 2003 when we voted it for the Best Environment and Conservation Award.

“It’s hard to get farmers to change their ways,” says Tony, who works with three local initiatives aimed at reef conservation and related educational outreach. This includes Project AWARE, a non-profit environmental organisation that encourages divers to take action and protect the environment.

The clown fish who moved the world
Global warming now threatens to nullify all these efforts. “If the coral reefs of the world are to survive, we cannot afford the predicted 2 – 3 degree increase in ocean temperature. But we also need to…reduce all impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. This would include improving the water quality of the reef.”

Tony comes across as a man of few, carefully chosen words. His answers are brief and precise. But his passion for the reef and the ocean is clearly evident.

He had a simple, emphatic message to the world’s leaders and activists meeting soon in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Summit: “How are we going to explain to our children and their children that we lost the Great Barrier Reef?”

Perhaps we need not only the next generation of Jacques Cousteaus, but also every kind of communicator who can take the marine conservation messages through factual and entertainment media formats. It’s encouraging to note that Finding Nemo, the 2003 Disney-Pixar animation movie set in the Great Barrier Reef, is the highest selling DVD of all time – more than 40 million copies, and counting.

WWF Australia backgrounder on the Great Barrier Reef

‘Thank you for warming the planet (good for business)’ — Africa’s malaria mosquitoes

Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei: Voice of Hope
Malaria still claims over a million lives every year, most of them in Africa. This is not simply a public health statistic for Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei – she lost a daughter to the ancient scourge that continues to outsmart human attempts to control it.

“It was very sad when my daughter died of malaria at the age of four,” she recalls. What makes it especially tragic is the fact that malaria is a new arrival in her area.

Nelly, 51, is a farmer living in Kenya’s Kericho District. Located high in the mountains, Kericho’s cold weather has kept mosquitoes at bay for centuries. But not any longer: global warming has raised the area’s average temperature, and mosquitoes have appeared in recent years, bringing malaria with them.

“I had never seen a mosquito until I was 20 years old. But now they are everywhere – people are even dying of malaria, something that was virtually unheard of 20 or 30 years ago,” Nelly told the 7th Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, being held in Viterbo, Italy, 25 – 29 November 2009.

The theme this year is ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’. Nelly Chepkoskei is one of 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled to the historic city from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change.

Climate Witness is a global programme by WWF International to enable grassroots people to share their story of how climate change affects their lives and what they are doing to maintain a clean and healthy environment. All Climate Witness stories have been authenticated by independent scientists.

Married with five children, Nelly grows maize and tea, and keeps a few cows – the pride and joy of Kenyan farmers. Lacking faith in politicians and government, she is working with women in her community to pursue their own development.

Life was never easy, but climate change is making it even harder.

“Rainfall patterns have changed drastically in recent decades,” she says. “In the Kericho district, we used to have rain throughout the year. I remember clearly that my family celebrated Christmas when it was raining heavily. But today, Christmas is usually dry.”

Unlike 20 years ago, the dry season is now hotter, drying up all the grass. In the past, the grass would remain green throughout the year.

“This means there isn’t enough fodder for my cows, leading to a drop in milk production and my income,” she explains. “The soils are also left bare during the dry season, which means more erosion when rains come in.”

With higher temperatures, more pests have turned up to damage crops. This prompts farmers to use more pesticides, increasing production costs and polluting the environment with hazardous chemicals.

Nelly turned out to be the most outspoken Climate Witness in Viterbo. In a frank exchange with an audience of 130 journalists, activists and scientists drawn from 55 countries, she exclaimed: “Don’t talk to politicians – they are the same everywhere! I can’t understand why journalists always follow politicians and are so keen to talk to them!”

She continued: “There is so many good things happening in Africa, but we don’t see it reported in the local and international media. You only hear about fighting, famine and corruption. So we continue to be seen and known as the Dark Continent.”

In her view, what Africa needs more than anything else is education. She firmly believes that higher levels of literacy and education would reduce the incidence of conflict and plunder.

Nelly herself is a high school drop out, and places a very high value on education to empower all Africans, especially women.

“There is a big gap between Kenyan intellectuals and the ordinary people. Knowledge is not where and how it is needed,” she says.

I asked her what she thought of foreign aid to Kenya and rest of Africa. This elicited a passionate and emphatic response: “If you want to spoil and corrupt Africa more, then keep giving aid to our governments. Aid money mostly ends up in the wrong hands, or buying guns to fight each other.”

She added: “We do need help, but don’t give aid to our governments. Instead, support NGOs who are better in delivering to the grassroots.”

Nelly and her network of women are digitally empowered. They refer the web to find out information on what aid and opportunities are available and then pursue them with all available means. Armed with the latest data, they lobby local and provincial governments to ensure that aid pledged from international donors reach the intended communities.

Nelly may not be Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and women’s right activist, but she admits to being a Wangaari in spirit. And having listened to the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize at a previous Greenaccord forum, I readily agree: women like Nelly are a beacon of hope not just for Africa, but to the entire Majority World.

If only the mosquitoes could spread their passion and concern for the land and people…

Read WWF report on climate change impacts in East Africa

Images courtesy Greenaccord and WWF

The Ultimate Race on a Warming Planet: Education vs. Catastrophe

Wells: Visionary and cautionary
Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,” said H G Wells, British writer and social activist (1866 – 1946).

This is one of my all time favourite quotes. With amazing economy of words, the author of science fiction classics such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds has summed up the story of human civilisation.

For much of history, our race has managed to outrun and outsmart an assortment of perils – and sometimes winning with only a wafer thin margin. Individual civilisations that lost the race were doomed to extinction, and now live only in history books and archaeological ruins.

As a whole, however, our species has managed to outlive famines, plagues, ice ages and nuclear weapons. But how are we going to fare with the latest peril – global climate change?

Coping with this phenomenon may well be the Ultimate Race to save our species and our planet. To increase our chances, we need to invest more on education — in its broadest sense.

This is the point I’ve been making in recent weeks, when giving talks about the role of information, education and communication (IEC as its practitioners call it) in preparing communities and societies to live with inevitable climate change. I have addressed diverse groups – from academics and science students to science journalists and civil society activists. Often, my audiences have been multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary.

Fortunately, I didn’t find anyone disagreeing with me – but some were uncertain on methods and means to unleash education on an unprecedented scale.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Education for Sustainable Development is an attempt to strengthen humanity’s prospects in the Ultimate Race.

TVE Asia Pacific’s latest Asian TV series, modestly named Saving the Planet, brings some dispatches from the frontier of that race. It shows how some people are working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action to live in harmony with the planet.

Increase our winning chances in the Ultimate Race!

Taste the Waste: Uncovering a crime against humanity and Nature

Opening the lid...

“How can we explain the fact that one sixth of humanity goes to bed hungry every night, when the world already produces enough food for all?

“The short answer is that there are serious anomalies in the distribution of food. Capricious and uncaring market forces prevent millions of people from having at least one decent meal a day, while others have an abundance of it. For the first time in history, the number of severely malnourished persons now equals the number suffering from over-consumption: about a billion each!”

That was the opening of an article on the future of food, co-authored by Sir Arthur Clarke and myself in 2000. It was circulated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to mark World Food Day that year, and was reproduced in 2008 in The Hindu newspaper, India.

Nearly a decade after we wrote those words, the situation hasn’t really improved. There still are a billion people for whom chronic hunger is a grim fact of life. About 25,000 people die of hunger every day. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the number of obese people has grown to 1.5 billion.

Talk about a world of contrast and disparity!

Here’s more shocking news: we routinely throw away half of all food produced in this world. Between plough and plate, or from farms to homes, we waste almost as much food as we eat.

Eyes Wide Shut?
Many countries don’t have the slightest idea how much is wasted. Britain made an effort to measure the waste pile and came to a staggering 15 million tons of food a year. This includes 484 million unopened tubs of yoghurt, 1.6 billion untouched apples, bananas worth £370 million and 2.6 billion slices of bread.

In his recent book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart documented the extent of waste in the food industry worldwide.

Taste the Waste is a new documentary film linked to an online campaign that shows us what is being thrown away: where, why, when and by whom.

The film maker turned campaigner, Valentin Thurn, has come up with one more reason why we should stem this callous waste: “Cutting food waste is an easy solution to reduce climate emissions and hunger,” he says.

Reducing food waste means a big opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – if we threw away only half of the avoidable waste, the consequences for the climate would be the same as taking one out of five cars off our roads.

It would also help the hungry, because they also depend on the global food cycle. Cash crops from all over the world are traded on the stock exchange. The agricultural resources on this planet are limited. The farmland taken up to produce the food that we throw away could instead be producing food for them.

Young activists protest against this situation by rescuing the wasted food. People eating rubbish – a habit that sounds disgusting until you see the loads of perfectly edible food in the bins of your supermarket or sandwich shop around the corner.

Thurn’s call to action: “We need your help! Go out, look around and tell us about the food in the bins where you live. Send texts, photos, videos, and help to reveal the huge scandal of how we are wasting food.”

Watch the film’s trailer on YouTube:

According to the latest FAO figures, there are more hungry people in the Asia Pacific (642 million) than all other regions combined. This is followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (265 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (53 million), and the Near East and North Africa (42 million). Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentages of people living in hunger, while the Middle East and North Africa saw the most rapid growth in the number of hungry people (13.5%) during 2008.

The UN’s definition of hunger is based on the number of calories consumed. Depending on the relative age and gender ratios of a given country, the cutoff varies between 1,600 and 2,000 calories a day.

Starting in 2008, activist groups worldwide observe 16 October as World Foodless Day. Their argument: World Food Day is a mockery and is much better named World Foodless Day.

It’s a day of global action on the crises that beleaguer the people. The objectives are to: “create public awareness and media attention on the root causes of the food crisis; provide policy recommendations and organize meetings with government officials, opinion makers and leaders; organise activities to raise our voices against neoliberal policies and their impact; and highlight people’s recommendations to respond to the world food crisis.”

Watch PAN-Asia Pacific’s video for World Foodless Day 2008:

Read an excellent review of Tristram Stuart’s book: Watching our wasteline, By Darryl D’Monte

Confessions of a Digital Immigrant: Reflections on mainstream and new media

The Digital Native: Was there a life before the Internet, Dad?

In early August 2009, I talked to a captive audience of media owners, senior journalists and broadcasters in Colombo about the ‘digital tsunami’ now sweeping across the media world. (It has been reported and discussed in a number of blog posts on Aug 6, Aug 7, Aug 8 and Aug 31).

As I later heard, some in my audience had mistakenly believed that I was advocating everything going entirely online. Actually, I wasn’t. I like to think that both the physical and virtual media experiences enrich us in their own ways. Real world is never black and white; it’s always a mix or hybrid of multiple processes or influences.

So I’ve just revisited the topic. I adapted part of the talk, and included more personalised insights, and wrote an essay titled ‘Confessions of a Digital Immigrant‘, which has just been published on Groundviews, the path-breaking citizen journalism initiative.

It opens with these words:

“My daughter Dhara, 13, finds it incredible that I had never seen a working television until I had reached her current age — that’s when broadcast television was finally introduced in Sri Lanka, in April 1979. It is also totally inconceivable to her that my entire pre-teen media experience was limited to newspapers and a single, state-owned radio station.

“And she simply doesn’t believe me when I say — in all honesty and humility — that I was already 20 when I first used a personal computer, 29 when I bought my first mobile phone, and 30 when I finally got wired. In fact, my first home Internet connectivity — using a 33kbps dial-up modem — and our daughter arrived just a few weeks apart in mid 1996. I have never been able to decide which was more disruptive…

Groundviews: 1,000 posts and counting...“Dhara (photographed above, in mid 2007) is growing up taking completely for granted the digital media and tools of our time. My Christmas presents to her in the past three years have been a basic digital camera, an i-pod and a mobile phone, each of which she mastered with such dexterity and speed. It amazes me how she keeps up with her Facebook, chats with friends overseas on Skype and maintains various online accounts for images, designs and interactive games. Yet she is a very ordinary child, not a female Jimmy Neutron.

“Despite my own long and varied association with information and communication technologies (ICTs), I know I can never be the digital native that Dhara so effortlessly is. No matter how well I mimic the native ‘accent’ or how much I fit into the bewildering new world that I now find myself in, I shall forever be a digital immigrant.”

Read the full essay ‘Confessions of a Digital Immigrant’ on Groundviews…

BigShot: A little camera with a Big potential — inspired by a film!

BigShot: Inspiration with every click?
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” This remark is attributed to one of my favourite essayists and philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

That was probably true for the 19th century in which he lived and died, but it takes a bit more than a mousetrap to generate a buzz these days. But simple and elegant inventions are still the best. BigShot is one of these.

It’s still in testing stage, but already being hailed as “a camera that could improve the way children learn about science and one another”.

BigShot is an innovation by Indian-born Shree K. Nayar, now the T. C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University in New York, USA.

As his university’s newspaper reports: “He came up with a prototype as sleek as an iPod and as tactile as a Lego set: the Bigshot digital camera. It comes as a kit, allowing children as young as eight to assemble a device as sophisticated as the kind grown-ups use—complete with a flash and standard, 3-D and panoramic lenses—only cooler. Its color palette is inspired by M&Ms, a hand crank provides power even when there are no batteries and a transparent back panel shows the camera’s inner workings.”

With the BigShot, Nayar wants to not only empower children and encourage their creative vision, but also get them excited about science. Each building block of the camera is designed to teach a basic concept of physics: why light bends when it passes through a transparent object, how mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, how a gear train works.

Watch Professor Shree Nayar talk about the purpose and development of the Bigshot camera project.

Nayar would like to roll out the camera, now in prototype form, along the lines of the One Laptop Per Child campaign: For each one sold at the full price of around $100, several would be donated to underprivileged schools in the United States and abroad. He will soon begin looking for a partner—a company or nonprofit—to help put Bigshot into production.

Life inspires innovation...
Wired magazine wrote in a recent review: “(It) is a super-simple digicam from the Computer Vision Lab at Columbia University. It comes in parts, ready to be assembled (by kids, but I can’t wait to get my hands on one), and teaches you along the way how these things work. It’s not quite the transparent view you get from making an old analog camera, where you can see how everything works, but it’s as close as you can get from a machine that uses circuit boards.”

Interestingly, the initial inspiration for BigShot came from a documentary: Born into Brothels (85 mins, 2004), a film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district. The widely acclaimed film, written and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for Documentary Feature made in 2004.

I saw that film during the AIDS Film Festival I helped organise in Bangkok in July 2004. In this film, the film maker, British photographer Zana Briski, gave 35 mm film cameras to eight children and watched as those cameras transformed their lives.

“The film reaffirmed something I’ve believed for a long time, which is that the camera, as a piece of technology, has a very special place in society,” says Nayar. “It allows us to express ourselves and to communicate with each other in a very powerful way.”

Watch an overview of Born into Brothels, featuring the film makers:

The Toilet is still a luxury for 2.5 billion people worldwide…

No laughing matter, this...

It had to happen sooner or later: a world day dedicated to, ahem, toilets. When all sorts of public interest causes are claiming the 365 days of our year, it was only a matter of time.

19 November is World Toilet Day – a day to celebrate the humble, yet vitally important, toilet and to raise awareness of the global sanitation crisis. It was established in 2001 by the World Toilet Organization (the other WTO!), a global non- profit organization committed to improving toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide.

The World Toilet Day promotes the importance of toilet sanitation and each person’s right to a safe and hygienic sanitary environment.

Did you know, for instance:
* 2.5 billion people do not have somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet?
* One gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs?

Here’s a cool viral video that WaterAid have produced to mark the event:

A third of the world’s population lacks any toilets. The rest of us who do have a toilet don’t always make the most efficient use of it – when we typically use 10 litres of water to flush away one litre of urine, that’s not very thrifty, is it?

On this day, I came across an interesting essay by Debra Shore, Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in The Huffington Post. She writes: “Using freshwater in toilets is not smart and it is not sustainable. I believe the homes of the future will be designed to use “grey” water — the water from our washing machines and dishwashers, the water from our showers and from rain captured in barrels and cisterns — to flush our toilets. This kind of redesign of water use, both residential and industrial, will be one of the growth industries of coming decades.”

She adds: “So, on World Toilet Day, here is my plea: monitor your water use. Think about ways to conserve water. And consider how lucky we are.”

Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters says toilets are a privilege that nearly half the world still lacks. At least 2.6 billion people around the planet have no access to a toilet — and that doesn’t just mean that they don’t have a nice, heated indoor bathroom. It means they have nothing — not a public toilet, not an outhouse, not even a bucket. They defecate in public, contaminating food and drinking water, and the disease toll due to unsanitized human waste is staggering. George notes that 80% of the world’s illnesses are caused by fecal matter.

Read more: Toilet Tales: Inside the World of Waste, by Bryan Walsh in TIME, Nov 2008

Calculate your water footprint

Blog post in July 2007: A Silent Emergency: More television sets than toilets!

Blog post in July 2007: Faecal Attraction: There’s no such thing as a convenient flush…

No full-stops (periods) in good journalism, only commas…

A S Panneerselvan
In any meeting, we can count on Indian journalist A S Panneerselvan to liven up the discussion. He didn’t let us down when a two dozen South Asians came together last weekend in New Delhi at a Symposium on Science, Environment and Media: Discussing Experiences in South Asia.

“There are no full-stops in good journalism, only commas,” he declared. He was referring to two of the most commonly used punctuation marks in modern writing.

This metaphor neatly sums up the nature of journalism, whose coverage of public affairs and society is often on-going, unfinished and open-ended. This prompted Phil Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, to describe journalism as the “first rough draft of history”. The reason is that journalists, in the performance of their duty often record important events, producing hurried written reports (in text, sound or pictures) often generated on short deadlines.

Panneer, who likes to call himself ‘a failed physicist and a failed journalist’, added that the intrinsic value of a journalist as one who tries to bring back the idea of commons — resources that are collectively owned, which can range from physical goods to artistic or creative products.

Panneer was speaking to the journalists, broadcasters, academics and activists brought together by Panos South Asia, IIT Delhi, and Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, for the two-day symposium on 15 – 16 November 2009.

I always welcome occasions when his and my paths cross as we move in overlapping South Asian circles. Listening to him this time around, I recalled his clear, emphatic words on a previous occasion, at an Asian regional brainstorming on ‘Communicating Disasters: Building on the tsunami experience and responding to future challenges’ that I convened in December 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand.

He said the media is plural term, not a singular one. This implies that the media are not a monolith. Some are excellent; many are mediocre; some are downright bad. Some in the media are also indifferent to some issues but may be outstanding in addressing other issues.

He added that media is also very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’.

Panneer’s day job is as the executive director of Panos South Asia. He was formerly the managing editor of Sun TV and bureau chief for Outlook magazine in India. Having been with the mainstream media for 20 years, he is now moving in that interesting overlap between media and development sectors. This gives him both insight and perspective.

Contributing a chapter to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book in 2007, Panneer wrote: “Development agencies rarely bring journalists into their universe at a stage which can be called ‘work-in-progress’. They usually just come to the media with a finished product. There is hardly any joint exploration. When presented with a finished product, there is just one alternative for a reporter — that is, to review the product that is already done.

“Imagine a scenario where journalists are brought into the process right from the word go. There would have been a series of stories, and when the final report of the development agencies is realised, that may well serve as the winding-up story tracking the entire trajectory.

“A journalist is expected to report and not just reproduce. Development agencies like their versions to be reproduced to a large extent. This becomes an assault on the journalists’ work-pride. He or she would like to do a field report, taking a cue or two from the work of the development agency. But, to merely reproduce a report is seen only as providing a free plug, an unpaid advertisement, and doing a stenographer’s job.”

Read his full chapter online: Engaging the Media: A Rough Guide by A S Panneerselvan