South Asian Sanitation Conclave: Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

L to R - Darryl D'Monte, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Nalaka Gunawardene

Who’s afraid of Pee and Poop?

That’s the innocent but slightly provocative question I posed to a South Asian Conclave on sanitation that I addressed today at the Colombo Hilton.

My audience was a group of South Asians – drawn mainly from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – working in government, mainstream media or development agencies, all sharing an interest in water supply and sanitation (wat-san) issues.

I was asked to speak about Telling the Sanitation Story using Moving Images. But after listening to the fairly staid and often technocratic discussions preceding my presentation, I changed it. In doing so, I said that especially in broadcast television, the window of opportunity to attract the viewer is a tight one – it used to be 45 seconds, but these days more likely 30 seconds.

Sanitation is both an issue that is both urgent and important. As I noted on World Toilet Day marked on 19 Nov 2009, 2.5 billion people do not have somewhere safe, private or hygienic to go to the toilet.

And as C. Ajith Kumar of the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) – convenors of the Conclave – reminded us at the outset, South Asia is where most of these people live. Lacking any alternative, more than a billion (yes, 1,000 million) South Asians defecate in the open on a daily basis.

That’s a lot of poop, folks — and it’s completely untreated, uncovered and responsible for too many preventable illnesses and deaths.

Despite this dire emergency at individual and society levels, officials and activists concerned with wat-san issues continue to tip-toe around this poop. Or so it seemed to me — after two days, not once had the words poop or shit been mentioned in discussions. Instead, everyone was using the more politically correct terms such as faeces, excreta and excrement.

“Most of those billion people pooping in the open are not going to understand the lofty terms used in the charmed development circle,” I said. “You’ve got to talk in a language that ordinary, real people can and will understand – that’s the first step in effective communication.”

South Asian Conclave on Sanitation in Colombo, 8 Dec 2009

The meeting had already acknowledged that improving sanitation involved a lot more than providing running water or building toilets. The development experience in the past three decade shows that infrastructure alone does not, automatically, lead to better sanitation. The biggest challenge remains in promoting hygienic practices among all – and that requires behaviour change, a slow and gradual process in any society.

I reminded everyone that when it comes to sanitation, the command-and-control approach that our South Asian governments are so used to adopting just won’t work. There are at least three aspects of life where choices and conduct are strictly personal: what happens in the bed room, bath room (toilet) and the shrine room.

As I summed it up in these words that I asked my audience to reflect on: Governments don’t defecate; people do.

“Please remember this if you really want to reach out and engage ordinary people who are living, breathing and pooping everyday in the real, harsh world.”

More of my presentation will be shared on this blog in the coming days.

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific

Little strokes make big pictures: Covering climate change in South Asian media

Given the surfeit of media stories on climate in the build-up to the Copenhagen climate conference (7-18 Dec 2009), it would appear that journalists have little or no difficulty in covering this literally hot topic, right?

Wrong. The planet is warming, but not all editors and other media gate-keepers have yet warmed up to the topic. (We might even say: some are thawing more slowly than glaciers these days!).

“While environment is fast becoming a trendy topic, environmental journalists say they are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their stories to editors. This is a confounding trend in the news media, given the increasing confusion – and resultant calls for clarity – about scientific data for climate change in the run up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The experts, however, say the trick is to repackage the story alluringly.”

Zofeen T Ebrahim

This is the thrust of an article just written by the experienced Pakistani journalist and blogger Zofeen T. Ebrahim on In Little strokes make big pictures, she probes the challenges that South Asian journalists continue to face in reporting and analysing on climate change in their mainstream media.

Zofeen, who was with me at the recent IFEJ congress in New Delhi a few weeks ago, quotes me in her article: “Nalaka Gunawardene, a senior award-winning science writer from Sri Lanka, recalls that his mentor, Tarzie Vittachi, once advised that ‘ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.’ Of course, three decades ago, well before climate change was a hot topic, Vittachi was speaking metaphorically. But the words have great import today.”

She also quotes South Asian colleagues like Kunda Dixit, Joydeep Gupta, Nirmal Ghosh and Aroosa Masroor Khan (all men, although they are among the finest in the profession :)).

Her conclusion: environmental stories may still be a hard sell in many media outlets, but committed journalists have found ways to market their stories first within their organisations, and then to their respective audiences. That is some good news as the crucial climate talks open in the cool climes of Copenhagen.

Read the full article: Little strokes make big pictures, by Zofeen T Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a Karachi-based independent journalist and has been writing for IPS since April 2003. She also writes for Women’s Feature Service, IRIN and Indo Asian News Service. The stories she has covered include human rights, specially pertaining to women and children, health and how development impacts environment.