A few months ago, I was invited to a media workshop on water organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The idea was to facilitate a frank dialogue between reporters and water experts on India’s current water crisis and what could be done about it. We were seized by the gravity of the crisis.
The symptoms of unrequited thirst were there for all to see and suffer: There are falling groundwater levels as people dig deeper in desperate search for more water; a flourishing water-market, mainly water tankers and bottled water, which too often gets its supplies from borewells in the farmlands located around the city; lastly, the increasing poisoning of groundwater by industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes, not to mention the naturally occurring dangerous chemicals like nitrates and fluorides in groundwater, which threaten to spiral into major public health disaster.
Pollution and excessive extraction apart, inequitable access to this most fundamental resource makes the problem especially egregious. While the rich can afford to spend huge amounts of money to set up borewells, install expensive water-purifying machines, or simply live on bottled water on a daily basis, the poor suffer scandalous indignities for lack of safe and clean water.
Lest it seem like propaganda of its vested interests, ADB had chosen speakers such that a wide spectrum of views was represented. So while the ADB consultant argued in favor of treating water as an economic good, a former bureaucrat-turned-academic tried to demonstrate that this position was fundamentally incompatible with the more laudable goal of equity. Likewise, a grassroots activist, who fervently believed in traditional water harvesting systems as the solution to India’s rural water problems, crossed swords with a technocrat who appeared convinced that mega water projects were the longterm answer to India’s water woes.
Journalists and the Water Debate
As for the journalists, they too reflected a range of opinions depending on, among other things, their social class, language of reporting, place of work, and the ownership of their newspaper. For instance, while some were openly critical of public water agencies, some others candidly expressed their distrust of corporations.
The workshop was intended to enhance our understanding of this complex subject. However, at the end of two days of discussion, most of us seemed as perplexed as ever by questions such as: Are private managements inherently better than public agencies? Can, indeed should, water be treated as a market commodity at all? Are big water projects such as dams the answer to the imminent water crisis, or should we go for local solutions, as have been demonstrated by many villages? What should be the best and just way to allocate river waters between upstream and downstream nations/states? Shouldn’t industries be forced to pay when they pollute water?
A major reason for this lack of clarity is that journalists’ understanding of water issues remains piecemeal. We simply do not know enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let me provide an illustration from the ADB workshop. The ADB representative in his presentation tried to convince the audience that privatization inevitably leads to greater transparency, efficiency and accountability. He didn’t mention equity. Most journalists who had written about chaos and corruption rife in public corporations tended to agree with this assertion. But then a mild-mannered professor begged to disagree. To prove his point, he fished out a slim book from his bag and read out the main findings of an investigation into privatized utilities around the world.
Much to the surprise of the journalists, not to mention the chagrin of the ADB official, in virtually all the case studies, the corporations were found guilty of corruption, lack of accountability, and a deplorable attitude towards the poor. The book even exposed the nexus between governments of rich nations, their corporations, international financial institutions like the World Bank (W.B.) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), academic institutions, and third world governments in pushing the agenda of privatization.
Incidentally the book, “The Water Barons,” is neither leftist propaganda nor a pamphlet of an environmental lobby. It was the result of an investigation of global water corporations by a consortium of journalists from around the world. I was one of them.
Notwithstanding the frustratingly complicated nature of the beast, it is morally incumbent upon journalists, no matter what their metier—business, politics, culture or environment—to present to the world a lucid, well- informed and cogently argued understanding of the various facets of the global water crisis. The irony is that despite a plethora of information on the subject, the quality of reportage on water issues leaves a lot to be desired.
Things, it would appear, haven’t changed all that much since I first began writing on the environment about 15 years ago. At the time, media coverage of water doubtless lacked rigor, sophistication and maturity. Typically, most stories on the subject tended to revolve around the seasonal theme of the Indian monsoon—whether it would be good or bad, how it would affect India’s economic growth, if there would be more floods, which regions would be drought-hit, and so on. Outside the pale of the monsoon, water rarely registered a blimp on media’s radar.
Cycles of Water Coverage
In the early 1990’s, there was a brief interlude of sensible and insightful reportage. It coincided with, rather than stemmed from, the global campaign against big dams that became really hot during those years. Largely inspired by India’s Narmada (a much-revered river) Bachao Andolan (NBA)—the Save the Narmada Campaign—the antidam struggles around the world symbolized a fundamental challenge to the received wisdom of so-called development. In particular, they attacked the Benthamite notion of the greatest good for the greatest number that the state often invoked to justify its repression of the poor and underprivileged.
This was arguably the Indian media’s first crucial lesson in the political economy of development. And it was during this period that environment reporting came of age. Needless to say, many Indian journalists, at least those who had been covering social and ecological movements, realized for the first time that water was much more than a meteorological phenomenon. It now resembled the proverbial Indian elephant. To capture its complex character, one had to delve deeper into its social, economic, cultural and political genealogy.
The ensuing years saw many examples of accomplished reporting on various aspects of water and its connectedness with other aspects of life. Newspapers sent their reporters far and wide to write powerful narratives on the ongoing social ferment against social, economic and political apartheid. Thanks to a strong and vibrant movement against big dams, the politics of water conflicts between castes, communities, rural and urban India, states and nations was conveyed with insight and sensitivity by many reporters. I still remember my early years as a reporter with the science and environment magazine Down to Earth, which produced some of the best reportage on water during those years, in particular an exploration of the revival of traditional water harvesting systems as an alternative to the failure of mega projects to bring water to millions of rural Indians.
But this fever of fine, engaging and sustained reportage on social concerns, including access to water, lost its momentum as India came under the spell of economic liberalization in the latter half of the 1990’s. Two years ago, when the Supreme Court of India ruled against an NBA petition seeking further construction of the controversial dam, media’s disenchantment with popular struggles against antipoor policies of the state was almost complete. Before long, newspapers had begun to chant the W.B.-IMF mantra of privatization. As in everything else, privatization was being touted as the key to solving India’s worsening water crisis.
Reportage on water has since become rather monochromatic. With the increasing competition from TV, newspapers have become increasingly intolerant of long analytical narratives on water issues. Reporters no longer travel to the arenas of action and are expected to file short snippety stories sitting in their newspaper offices. Indeed, market forces have forced the media to look upon themselves as more of an economic than social good. As corporations take over the media, relevant and meaningful news has almost become part and parcel of the corporate social responsibility.
However, even as environment reporting is languishing, water continues to enjoy media’s indulgence, not because rural India is dying of thirst but because the urban middle class is facing an acute water crisis. Even in cities, the water needs of the poor are rarely reported. Indeed, water makes it to the front page only in the summer months, when people in Indian cities start crying hoarse for water. For instance, arsenic pollution of groundwater in large swathes of India and Bangladesh has not been given the prominence it deserved. (As an aside, when I returned home from my Nieman Fellowship, I was told by my editor to focus more on science stories as readers found gloomy stories about the environment boring. Before long, I became redundant in the magazine and had to leave.)
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in recent years reportage on this complex subject has regressed to its earlier character—unsophisticated and immature. The rather shallow coverage, or the lack of any at all, of India’s most quixotic scheme ever to link together all of its rivers as a panacea for its water malaise presents a case in point. At the same time, the news media have tended to be less critical of marketbased solutions to environmental crises while overlooking insightful grassroots critiques of water management. Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that economic reforms (read privatization) have robbed millions of poor Indians of whatever little access to water they might have had. The mainstream media, even as it sings hosannas for economic reform, have failed to highlight the fact that economic globalization has led to more unsustainable consumption of water by forcing farmers to grow water-intensive cash crops and by promoting water-intensive industries like mining.
Let me give three examples:
The newly formed state of Chattisgarh leased a stretch of a river to a private company for its industrial operations. The contract prohibited the local population from drawing water from the leased river stretch, as well as groundwater around the area. The mainstream media completely missed the story. It was only through a sustained popular protest that the project was put on the backburner.
The ADB recently loaned one of the Indian states millions of dollars to restructure its water infrastructure. One of the conditions in the contract is that only those who can pay can get water. In other words, millions of poor who live below the poverty line can die of thirst. There have been many popular protests against this development, but it seems the mainstream media are simply not interested, let alone concerned.
In recent years there have been several protests against Coca-Cola’s bottling plants extracting huge amounts of groundwater, thereby depriving nearby villages of their only source of water, not to mention contaminating groundwater by palming off their toxic sludge as fertilizer on unsuspecting farmers. Even after the High Court ordered the plant to shut its operations, the mainstream media chose not to investigate the matter.
One can cite many such cases where industries have been polluting rivers and groundwater with impunity. The mainstream media’s indifference is understandable as the victims are mostly poor villagers or slum dwellers in cities. The fact that the same journalists created a brouhaha over allegations that different brands of soft drinks, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, had traces of pesticides in them clearly betrays the mainstream media’s biases. That millions of poor people should be denied access to this most basic of resources is a shame for any society. It’s ironic that just as the welfare state reneges on its social contract with its citizens under pressure from market forces, the mainstream news media choose to look the other way. As the watchdog of India’s democracy, the news media can ignore this hard reality only at their own peril.
Rakesh Kalshian, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is with Panos South Asia, where he oversees the environment and globalization desk based in Kathmandu, Nepal.