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

Asia’s Other Eclipse: The one that doesn’t make TV news!

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This century’s longest solar eclipsed moved across Asia on 22 July 2009, wowing scientists and the public alike. Asia’s multifarious media covered the solar eclipse with great enthusiasm and from myriad locations across the vast continent.

The path of the eclipse’s totality –- where the sun was completely obscured by the Moon for a few astounding minutes –- started in northern India. It then crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. Those who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time saw one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It was certainly a sight to behold, capture on film, and cherish for a lifetime.

But many along the path missed this chance as clouds obscured the Sun. It’s the rainy season in much of Asia, where the delayed monsoon is finally delivering much-needed rain.

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

That’s what happened in Taregna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The media had dubbed it the ‘epicentre’ of the solar eclipse, and estimated totality to be visible for at least three minutes and 38 seconds. Thousands who flocked to the village were disappointed when the clouds refused to budge. Nature doesn’t follow our scripts.

That didn’t deter some affluent Indians -– if the eclipse won’t come to them, they just went after it. They chartered an airplane to fly above the rain clouds to catch the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. Each seat cost US Dollars 1,650.

It’s rarely that totality crosses through countries with such high human numbers as China and India. This time around, millions of people and thousands of journalists took advantage.

Some travelled long distances hoping to get the best view from the 200-km wide path of totality. Others watched it one of Asia’s many and cacophonous 24/7 TV news channels. The event had all the elements of a perfect television story: mass anticipation, eager experts and enthusiasts, occasional superstitions, uncertainties of weather and, finally, a stunning display of Nature’s raw power.

‘Darkness at Dawn!’ screamed a popular headline, referring to the eclipse causing a sudden ‘nightfall’ after the day had begun. Other superlatives like ‘Spectacle of the century’ and ‘A sight never to be missed’ were also widely used.

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Solar eclipses are indeed a marvel of Nature, and the media’s excitement was justified. For once, it was good to see them devoting a great deal of airtime and print/web space for something that was not violent, depressing or life-threatening.

How I wish Asia’s media took as much interest in another kind of ‘eclipse’ that surrounds and engulfs us! One that does not end in minutes, but lasts for years or decades, and condemns millions to lives of misery and squalor.

Stories of poverty, social disparity and economic marginalisation are increasingly ‘eclipsed’ in Asia by stories of the region’s growing economic and geopolitical might.

The mainstream media in Asia –- as well as many outlets in the West — never seem to tire of carrying reports of Asia rising. Indeed, that is a Big Story of our times: many Asian economies have been growing for years at impressive rates. Thanks to this, over 250 million Asians have moved out of poverty during this decade alone. According to the UN’s Asian arm ESCAP, this is the fastest poverty reduction progress in history.

We see evidence of increased prosperity and higher incomes in many parts of developing Asia. Gadgets and gizmos –- from MP3 to mobile phones — sell like hot cakes. More Asians are travelling for leisure than ever before, crowding our roads, trains and skies. Lifestyle industries never had it so good. Even the current recession hasn’t fully dampened this spending spree.

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

But not everyone is invited to the party. Tens of millions of people are being left behind. Many others barely manage to keep up -– they must keep running fast just to stay in the same place.

National governments, anxious to impress their own voters and foreign investors, often gloss over these disparities. The poor don’t get more than a token nod in Davos. National statistical averages of our countries miss out on the deprivations of significant pockets of population.

For example, despite recent gains, over 640 million Asians were still living on less than one US Dollar a day in 2007 according to UN-ESCAP. Three quarters of the 1.9 billion people who lack safe sanitation are in Asia — that’s one huge waiting line for a toilet!

On the whole, the UN cautions that the Asia Pacific region is in danger of missing out the 2015 target date for most Millennium Development Goals – the time-bound and measurable targets for socio-economic advancement that national leaders committed to in 2000.

The plight of marginalised groups is ignored or under-reported by the cheer-leading media. For the most part, these stories remain forever eclipsed. Except, that is, when frustrations accumulate and blow up as social unrest, political violence or terrorism. Even then, the media’s coverage is largely confined to reporting the symptoms rather than the underlying social maladies.

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

“Half the children in South Asia go to bed hungry every night, but the covers of our news magazines are about weight loss parlors,” says Kunda Dixit, Chief Editor of The Nepali Times.

As he noted in a recent essay: “Maternal mortality in parts of Nepal is nearly at sub-Saharan levels, but we are obsessed with politics. Hundreds of cotton farmers in India commit suicide every year because of indebtedness, but the media don’t want to cover it because depressing news puts off advertisers. Reading the region’s newspapers, you would be hard-pressed to find coverage of these slow emergencies.”

P N Vasanti, Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies which monitors the leading newspapers and news channels in India, laments how “development” issues such as health, agriculture and education are not even on the radar of popular news sources. Her conclusion is based on a content analysis of the six major Indian news channels during the run-up to the recent general election in India.

I have come across similar apathy in my travels across Asia trying to enhance television broadcasters’ coverage of development and poverty issues. As one Singaporean broadcast manager, running a news and entertainment channel in a developing country, told me: “I don’t ever want to show poor people on my channel.”

Don’t get me wrong. Trained as a science journalist, I can fully appreciate the awe and wonder of a solar eclipse. For years, I have cheered public-spirited scientists who join hands with the media to inform and educate the public on facts and fallacies surrounding these celestial events.

But there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our mainstream media’s breathless coverage of the march of capital. Journalists and their gate-keepers should look around harder for the many stories that stay eclipsed for too long.

* * * * * *

Shorter version of the above comment was published by Asia Media Forum on 23 July 2009

Full length version appeared on OneWorld.Net on 23 July 2009

Reprinted in The Nepali Times, 24 July 2009

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...