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.]

To Whom It May Concern, a.k.a. Tell Me Lies: In memory of Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008)

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam…

With these lines opened the bitterly sarcastic reaction to the televised horrors of the Vietnam War by British poet, playwright and performer Adrian Mitchell.

He first read his best-known poem, called To Whom It May Concern (also known as Tell Me Lies), to thousands of anti-war protesters who flocked into London’s Trafalgar Square on the afternoon of Easter Monday 1964. As Mitchell delivered his lines from the pavement above in front of the National Gallery, angry demonstrators in the square below scuffled with police.

Adrian Mitchell (1932 - 2008)
Adrian Mitchell (1932 - 2008)
Mitchell, who died on 20 December 2008 aged 76, occasionally updated the poem to take into account the subsequent wars and resulting tragedies in places as far apart as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine.

“It is about Vietnam, But it is still relevant,” Mitchell said in 2001. “It’s about sitting faithfully in England while thousands of miles away terrible atrocities are being committed in our name.”

As Michael Kustow wrote in an obituary in The Guardian: “Mitchell’s original plays and stage adaptations, performed on mainstream national stages and fringe venues, on boats and in nature, add up to a musical, epic and comic form of theatre, a poet’s drama worthy of Aristophanes and Lorca. Across the spectrum of his prolific output, through wars, oppressions and deceptive victories, he remained a beacon of hope in darkening times. He was a natural pacifist, a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat.”

The one time journalist and television critic was fired by The Sunday Times (UK) for reviewing Peter Watkins’ 1965 anti-nuclear TV film The War Game. Its depiction of the impact of Soviet nuclear attack on Britain had caused such dismay within the BBC and British government that the public broadcaster cancelled its scheduled transmission on 6 August 1966 (the 21 anniversary of the Hiroshima attack). It was finally broadcast in 1985, with the corporation stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”.

But Auntie Beeb and the rest of the Establishment couldn’t stop Mitchell, whose satirical poems continued to demolish myths emanating from the propaganda mills of the military-industrial complex and their allies in the mainstream media.

As Kustow recalled: “To Whom It May Concern, a riveting poem against bombs and cenotaphs and the Vietnam war, with which he stirred a capacity audience in Mike Horovitz’s pioneering Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965, has lasted through the too many wars since: a durable counting-rhyme to a rhythm and blues beat.”

Watch Adrian Mitchell recite/sing his poem in 1965 (black and white film):

As Jan Woolf wrote in another tribute: “To watch Adrian Mitchell…prepare his body for a performance of To Whom It May Concern – chin cupped in hand, eyes focused, back tense, ‘I got run over by the truth one day…’ – was to see a great poet steadying himself with all the focus and tension of a warrior. When those blue suede shoes got moving, the poem came alive. He breathed it, lived it, became it. It was as if he were dancing with language to get at the truth.”

Woolf recalls that Mitchell’s reading of Tell Me Lies at a City Hall benefit just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was electrifying. “Of course, he couldn’t stop that war, but he performed as if he could.”

Watch Mitchell read what he called the 21st-century remix of his protest poem ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell me lies about Vietnam)’.

The 21st century re-mix ends with these words:

“You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out
You take the human being, and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about –
BAE Systems

Tell me lies Mr Bush
Tell me lies Mr Blairbrowncameron

Tell me lies about Vietnam

For some strange reason that has nothing to do with Adrian Mitchell’s recent departure, these words and the whole poem keep turning in my mind over and over again.

Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you

Image courtesy Treehugger

“Remember me!”

That’s how Anita Roddick, who died on 10 September of brain haemorrhage, autographed for me a copy of her book Taking It Personally: How to make Conscious Choices to Change the World.

You’re hard to forget, I told her at the time. And suddenly, memories are all we are left with. And what vivid ones!

Dame Anita Roddick (1942 – 2007), founder of The Body Shop, is one of the most unforgettable persons I have met. And now that she has moved on, far too soon, her memory challenges us to persist with the social, humanitarian and environmental causes that she so passionately championed.

Media obituaries described her as the ‘Queen of Green’, but Anita was much more than just green. She stood for justice, fairness and equality in both business practices and her campaigns. From ethical sourcing of raw materials for her beauty products to agitating for human rights and humane globalization, she was one activist who walked the talk.

“I came out of the womb as an activist. I’m part of the 1960s; it’s in my DNA,” she wrote in Newsweek earlier this year. “So the idea of dying with loads of money doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

She added: “I want to use the last years I have to get my hands dirty working for civil change. I want to be able to see the positive difference that money can make by giving away what I have.”

It’s not immediately clear if she made much headway with that, but the recently set up Roddick Foundation is the latest of a long line of campaigns, social projects and charities that she founded, energised or supported.

Her business acumen and commitment to global justice have been eulogised for years. She was equally adept in using the media and communications to draw attention to a cause, issue or incident.

Without going to any business school, Anita built up a global business that had over 2,200 stores in 55 countries by the time she let go of the company in 2004. And without attending any communication school, she became one of the best communicators of our troubled times – speaking eloquently for her company’s ideals and various charitable causes.

It all came from the heart, and it was passion –- not cold facts or even colder logic -– that drove her to be a phenomenally successful communicator.

Anita loved to say: “The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.” And her advice to activists was: Get Informed. Get Inspired. Get Outraged. Get Active.

Never underestimate the power of one, she said. As she liked to put it:
If many little people
In many little places
Did many little deeds
They can change the face of the Earth

And like the Energizer bunny, but with lot more purpose, she kept going, going and going. She loved the Dorothy Sayers quote: “A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force”.

It was on one of her many world travels that our paths first crossed. In the summer of 1991, I was invited to give a workshop at Youthquake, a Canadian environmental conference building up momentum for the Earth Summit scheduled for the following year. It was here that I met two of my all-time favourite activists: geneticist-turned-TV presenter David Suzuki, and Anita Roddick. The celebrity guest was Mutang Tu’o, a representative from the Penan indigenous tribe from Sarawak, Malaysia, whose jungles were in imminent danger of being logged.

Youthquake was part conference, part youth jamboree and altogether a great deal of fun. Anita turned up with her youngest daughter Sam, and spent hours just telling real life stories in her inimitable way – full of laughter and making fun of power and pomposity. After all these years, I can’t remember anything about what I myself spoke, but I know Anita’s remarks had a lasting influence.

In those heady days before the Earth Summit, email and the global Internet, activists had an easier and simpler choice of adversaries — Uncle Sam and World Bank usually came up among the top five. When economic globalization gathered pace, things became more complex and nuanced. Ah, for the good old days!

Anita marched fearlessly into this new world where corporate fortunes are being made at the speed of light, governments are waging wars to the tune of media-entertainment industries, and certain development agencies have turned poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS into cottage industries.

Marshall all facts, get analysis right, take your firing positions and never give up the good struggle, she seemed to suggest: there’s a war out there, and it wasn’t just in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, Taking It Personally was her rough guide on how to tame run-away globalization. For it, Anita invited the top thinkers in the struggle for humanitarian trade policies to weigh in on the problem, and to give citizens the tools and inspiration to do work for constructive solutions. Among its contributors were Vandana Shiva, Paul Hawken (Natural Capitalism), Naomi Klein (No Logo), and Ralph Nader.

When she autographed a copy for me, she added with a mischievous grin that the book’s US distributors had been coerced to withdraw it. She showed a possible reason: that famous photo of President George W Bush reading a book with a young child — while holding it upside down!

It’s this topsy turvy, cruel world that Anita Roddick tried to make slightly better in a thousand different ways. We fellow travellers will sorely miss her, but there is ‘no bloody alternative’ but to just slog on.

— Nalaka Gunawardene; Kathmandu 12 September 2007

Read my earlier post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the ‘Development Pill’

BBC Online: Dame Anita Roddick dies at 64

War Made Easy: Exposing the Spin Doctors of Death

As we mark the sixth anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, attention is focused more and more on the role the media played in the days and months that followed.

The war in Iraq was justified as a retaliation against 9/11. The Pentagon marched on to the cheer-leading of American media, which barely asked the basic questions, let along challenge the military-political logic.

A new documentary probes how this shameless acquiescence took place in full public glare. WAR MADE EASY: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, narrated by Sean Penn, features Normon Solomon, on whose 2005 book the film is largely based.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

And its synopsis:

War Made Easy reaches into the Orwellian memory hole to expose a 50-year pattern of government deception and media spin that has dragged the United States into one war after another from Vietnam to Iraq. Narrated by actor and activist Sean Penn, the film exhumes remarkable archival footage of official distortion and exaggeration from LBJ to George W. Bush, revealing in stunning detail how the American news media have uncritically disseminated the pro-war messages of successive presidential administrations.

War Made Easy gives special attention to parallels between the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq. Guided by media critic Norman Solomon’s meticulous research and tough-minded analysis, the film presents disturbing examples of propaganda and media complicity from the present alongside rare footage of political leaders and leading journalists from the past, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, dissident Senator Wayne Morse, and news correspondents Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer.

Norman Solomon’s work has been praised by the Los Angeles Times as “brutally persuasive” and essential “for those who would like greater context with their bitter morning coffee.” This film now offers a chance to see that context on the screen.

Approx. 72 minutes
English subtitles
Directed & Written by: Loretta Alper & Jeremy Earp
Produced by: Loretta Alper
Co-produced & Edited by: Andrew Killoy
Executive Producers: Jeremy Earp & Sut Jhally
Associate Producer: Jason Young
Sound: Peter Acker, Armadillo Media Group
Motion Graphics: Andrew Killoy & Sweet & Fizzy
Additional Music: John Van Eps & Leigh Philips
Narrated by: Sean Penn
Based on the book by Norman Solomon

Image courtesy War Made Easy website

I haven’t yet seen this film, but it’s certainly one I want to catch soon. Not the least because I live and work in a war-ravaged country – Sri Lanka – where the politicians and generals have engaged in their own (increasingly sophisticated) acts of spin doctoring. Most alarmingly, large sections of the Sri Lankan media find absolutely nothing wrong to play along, all in the name of patriotism….

Sounds familiar?

Read the full transcript of War Made Easy

A girl named Nan Nan…

Nan Nan is a young girl living in Guo Zhuang Village, in China’s Anhui province. Her parents died of AIDS sometime ago, and she now lives with an older sister — and HIV.

After her parents’ death, the two girls were shunned by relatives and left to live without adult care. “Little Flower,” Nan Nan’s teenage sister, is about to get married. She vows not to tell the groom about her sibling’s disease.

Nan Nan is one China’s estimated 75,000 (and growing) AIDS orphans. She is one of several children whose depressing story is captured in a documentary film, The Blood of the Yingzhou District (China/USA, 40 mins, 2006).

I watched this film last afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC as part of the DC Environmental Film Festival. For me, it was one of the highlights of the festival. After all, this film won the Oscar award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects (while Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for best documentary feature).

Notwithstanding the giggly woman moderator provided by the host institution, and even in the absence of any representative from the film’s producers – China AIDS Media Project — the audience managed to have fairly good discussion with a representative from Family Health International who was panelist to discuss the issue of AIDS orphans.

Accoring to FHI, some 15 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS — and the numbers continue to grow as the pandemic consumes men and women of child-bearing age.

But the millions and billions don’t make much sense to most people. It’s hard to visualise more than a few thousand, let alone millions. This is something that UN agencies – all claiming to be serving the poor and disadvantaged – often forget: they dabble in the abstract, theoretical and statistical matters far removed from real people, real issues.

In that sense, films like The Blood of the Yingzhou District take us close to the unfolding human tragedies behind big numbers.

This is just what we tried to do in our own Children of Tsunami media project, in which producing a documentary film was one of many outputs across different media platforms and formats.

A question was asked how the film has been received in China. The giggly moderator informed us that it is allowed to be screened in China, which is encouraging. But the Chinese response to the film has been mixed, as can be expected. See this interesting exchange online.

What impressed me the most was the film’s subtle yet powerful use of soundtrack – a good mix of music, natural sounds and spoken voices. Some featured children did seem a bit like acting at times, but that didn’t detract the film’s value too much, at least for me.

Truly a moving image creation that moves people!

See trailer on YouTube.

Kicking the oil addiction: Miles to go…

On Saturday 17 March, over 10,000 people coming from all over the United States marched on the Pentagon in Washington DC protesting the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

They braved freezing temperatures – and lots of rain, sleet and snow. I could only admire the resolve of these people, some of whom I saw on my way to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for an afternoon of film screenings.

As The Washington Post reported on Sunday: “The march, part of a weekend of protests that included smaller demonstrations in other U.S. cities and abroad, comes as the Bush administration sends more troops to Iraq in an attempt to regain control of Baghdad and Congress considers measures to bring U.S. troops home.”

Meanwhile, the DC Environmental Film Festival was taking a closer look at one major reason why the US went to war in Iraq: oil.

Addicted to Oil is the title of a new documentary on Discovery Channel. This one-hour documentary, reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times, explores his ideas for a “geo-green alternative” — a multi-layered strategy for tackling a host of problems, from the funding of terrorist supporters through America’s gasoline purchases, to strengthening US economy through innovative technology.

See interview extracts on Discovery website

Watch the first few minutes of Addicted to Oil:

I missed his panel discussion because of exceedingly cold and damp weather on Friday evening. But this is a topic that will continue to dominate the environmental and security agendas for years to come.

And it’s something that I myself have written about. When the US and its ‘Coalition of the Willing’ were about to move into Iraq in March 2003, I wrote an op ed essay titled “Oil, Iraq & Water: Will The Media Get This Big Story?”. It was globally syndicated by Panos Features, and appeared in quite a number of newspapers, magazines and websites at the time.

The full essay is found online on, of all places, the Sri Lankan government’s official website! Here’s a short extract:

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.’

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.

Read the full essay here.