Exploring our crowded planet, One Square Mile at a time…

Vasanthi Hariprakash exploring One Square Mile in Kathmandu, Nepal

It’s funny how, more than a generation after most of the world adopted the metric system of measurements, relics of the earlier, ‘imperial’ units still linger in our language and popular culture.

Frequent flyers stlll accumulate air-miles, not kilometres. Disaster managers grapple with the challenges of communicating credible early warnings on that the crucial ‘last mile’ (it’s not yet the ‘last kilometre’). And many among us, including those who have grown up in a metric world, can better grasp a square mile than a square kilometre.

One Square Mile is also the name of an interesting new TV series produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, and first airing this month on BBC World News. In this series, reporters visit a neighbourhood in different parts of the developing world and try and find out what the residents’ hopes and aspirations

Says its producer Robert Lamb: “One Square Mile is an experiment. So much in television is set up. In this series our reporters explore a small patch of a city with the aim of providing the viewer with an authentic slice of life.”

According to Robert, One Square Mile takes the lid off a neighbourhood. Reporters wander around a marked out section of a town and city and talk to the people they meet to find out what their everyday concerns are.

Of this months shows, two are presented by Zeinab Badawi . In one, she goes walkabout in Juba, capital of south Sudan which is on the verge of becoming an independent state. In the other, Badawi encounters murder on the streets in Guatemala City.

The other two are presented by my friend Vasanthi Hariprakash, whose day job is with India’s leading TV news network NDTV. These two are of particular interest to me as she travels to countries in Asia that are closer to me in distance and closer to my heart.

In one show, Vasanthi travels to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The blurb says: “Despite a recent record of political instability that has seen a monarchy overthrown and an uneasy peace struck with the Maoist insurgents, reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash finds a city population surprisingly upbeat. But a long dawn queue outside the passport office tells a different story – young Nepali men are desperate to get out to find work in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.”

I’m familiar with that city having made multiple visits since 1995, and have shared the pains and anxieties of my Nepali friends as they went through political turmoil and a bloody insurgency. I saluted them when their ‘people power’ got rid of the despotic king in 2006.

Vasanthi did remarkably well in presenting her first-time appearance on a BBC-broadcast show. She came across as informed, eager and empathetic to the people and place she was exploring. Not once did I notice a hint of cynicism or condescension in her voice. This is quite in contrast to regular BBC reporters, many of who are far too judgemental and dismissive than good journalists should ever be. We can only hope vasanthi never aspires to those despicable professional levels…

Amidst political intrigue and uncertainties, life goes on in Kathmandu...

In her second show, Vasanthi travels to a small village in Laos next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail where the dominant concern is unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. The synopsis reads: “From the capital Vientiane it takes 10 hours for reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash to reach her square mile – a village next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail. Today it’s a peaceful highway for enterprising Vietnamese traders but during the war it was a target for the B 52 bombers with their deadly cargo of cluster bombs. 40% are live – called UXOs – Unexploded Ordinance – and Hariprakesh finds the villagers’ poverty leaves them no choice but to run the gauntlet of the unexploded munitions as they work in their paddy fields.”

This reminds me of a short film I saw in Cambodia many years ago about a poor, rural community who faced a similar dilemma living and working in a countryside littered with unknown and unexploded landmines. The Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia may have ended decades ago, but local people still live in the shadow of their deadly legacies…

I can’t wait for more real-life stories in One Square Mile, and I hope Robert Lamb will send out his intrepid and charming reporters to far corners of the real world where real people are taking on life’s many challenges 24/7. These people’s resilience and resourcefulness inspire us all.

And that’s what good television is all about. Moving images, moving us all!

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The Mekong: One river, six countries, two films — and many views

Mekong River flows through 6 countries, nurturing 65 million Asians


The Mekong is one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. Sometimes called the ‘Danube of the East’, it nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path.

The Mekong’s long journey begins in the Tibetan highlands. It flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam. It’s a journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres, or some 3,000 miles.

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.

On its long journey across 6 countries, the Mekong provides a life-line to over 65 million people. They share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

Naturally, these teeming millions who share the river feel differently about how best to manage the river waters in their best interests. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) tries to nurture cooperation among the Mekong river countries, but differences still remain.

Some of these surfaced during the Mekong Media Forum being held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009. As IPS reporter Marwaan Macan-Markar reported, “A heated debate about the future of the Mekong River at a media conference in this northern Thai city exposed a fault line triggered by the regional giant China’s plans to build a cascade of dams on the upper stretches of South-east Asia’s largest waterway.”

At the centre of this debate was Pipope Panitchpakdi, my Thai film-maker friend who recently made the documentary Mekong: The Untamed. He is both an outstanding journalist and an outspoken media activist.

He told the Forum: “The most important issue for people who live along the banks (of the lower stretches) of the Mekong are the dams and how these affect them. They cannot see the river as a pretty sight.”

Mekong: The Untamed chronicles the journey of Suthichai Yoon, a leading Thai media personality, from the headwaters of the Mekong River in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The question he seeks to answer through his travels is how the planned Chinese dams affect communities who live along the banks of the river.

“My Mekong journey goes to the heart of Asia’s complexities,” says the narrator as he makes his way from China’s southern province of Yunnan to the north-eastern Thai town of Chiang Khong. The scenes he passes range from the raging waters of the Mekong and hills swathed with mist to riverside communities being torn apart by a building frenzy. “I wonder if the Chinese realise what the people who are impacted by the dam feel?” Suthichai asks at one point.

According to Pipope, another documentary film about the Mekong made by Chinese filmmakers overlooks some serious issues: “There was nothing about a lot of villages disappearing, that there are floods and the doubts people have about the Chinese dams.”

This second film, also showcased at the Mekong Media Forum, is a 20-episode series titled Nourished by the Same River, and has been made by China Central Television (CCTV).

A Chinese journalist on the panel conceded that the planned development targeting the Mekong would provoke a range of responses. “It is natural that different people will have different perspectives on similar issues,” said Zhu Yan, a senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television. “In China there is a debate (around the question) of environment or dams.”

The Mekong is both a mighty river and a massive bundle of issues for any film or film series to tackle. And given the multitude of countries, interests and viewpoints involved, it’s unlikely that there will be consensus.

But it’s good that films are sparking off discussion and debate…just what we need for more informed choices to be made in the future.


Read full IPS story: Chinese Dams Expose Fault Lines, By Marwaan Macan-Markar

‘Saving the Planet’ new Asian TV series is ready for release!

It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!

It's planet saving time...and everybody is invited!

Can ordinary people help save our planet?

What does it take to change their attitudes and lifestyles to consume and waste less?

For over two years, my team at TVE Asia Pacific and I have been working on a new TV series, modestly called Saving the Planet. It will be released at a regional conference in Tokyo, Japan, on 22 August 2009.

In this Asian series, produced in partnership with Asia Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU), we profile successful initiatives that combine knowledge, skills and passion to create cleaner and healthier environments.

It was filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia: Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand.

The groups profiled in Saving the Planet often work without external funding and beyond the media spotlight. They have persisted with clarity of vision, sincerity of purpose and sheer determination. Their stories inspire many others to pursue grassroots action for a cleaner and safer planet.

Watch the series trailer here:

The dedicated website has just been revamped for the launch.

Watch out for more updates!