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Pulitzer Center Update September 30, 2015

This Week: The Sacred and the Polluted


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Image by Cameron Conaway. India, 2013.

India has declared 2015-2016 as Jal Kranti Varsh, or Water Revolution Year. What will this mean for...

Media file: unnamed.jpg
Image by Cameron Conaway. India, 2013.


Sitting in a boat drifting slowly amid the dead in the Ganges, Pulitzer Center grantee Cameron Conaway says, "I wasn't struck so much by the burning bodies as by how, in water just a few feet from floating corpses, young boys rinsed their mouths and spat the water high into the air."

In the holy city of Varanasi, up to 100 corpses a day are surrendered to the river in keeping with religious tradition, but according to Cameron, what's flowing beneath the surface is much worse: "Millions of gallons of industrial effluents and raw sewage drain into the Ganges each day. The results are devastating. Diarrhea, often caused by exposure to fecal matter, kills 600,000 Indians per year, and waterborne diseases throughout the Ganges River basin, many a result of the polluted waters, cost families $4 billion per year."

Ancient religious ritual and modern industrial pollution are effectively poisoning a river that supports a staggering 10 percent of the world's population. In this wide-ranging feature story for Newsweek, Cameron reports that a catastrophe of epic proportion is looming unless the Indian government takes steps to reverse the trend.


As leaders in Europe and the U.S. offer little more than a sympathetic shrug to the rising flood of refugees trying to escape the torment of the Middle East, Pulitzer Center senior adviser Marvin Kalb recalls another moment of collective inaction: "In 1938, the refugees were mostly German Jews, squeezed out of their country—where many had lived for hundreds of years—by a cruel Nazi policy of judenrein, cleansing the region of Jews."

Franklin Roosevelt was reluctant to take on Congress at a time when anti-Semitism and isolationism were deeply entrenched in American culture and politics. But not wishing to appear indifferent, Roosevelt called a high-level international conference. World leaders and hundreds of journalists gathered at the posh French resort of Evian-les-Bains.

"The food was superb, and the vistas breathtaking, and everyone tried to exude good will. In fact, if success could be measured by good will alone, the Evian Conference would have been judged a roaring success," writes Marvin in this piece for the Brookings Institution blog Order from Chaos. "Hopes had been raised, and then dashed. The Evian Conference went down in history as a complete flop. Only one nation, the Dominican Republic, agreed to accept 100,000 refugees."


These have been busy days for Marvin. Last week, his latest book, Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War, was published to critical acclaim. With a timeline that runs from Peter the Great to Putin, his wise book puts the Ukraine conflict in clear-eyed perspective. And this evening, without breaking stride, Marvin will discuss the state of our national pastime with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred on The Kalb Report, broadcast on C-SPAN at 8pm.


Pulitzer Center grantee Reese Erlich, in a dispatch from Tehran for USA Today, reports that Iran's decision to sign the Vienna nuclear agreement has opened the door to candid discussions on formerly taboo topics. "For the first time in years some Iranian intellectuals—both reformists and conservatives—are cautiously raising questions about Iran's foreign policy."

According to Reese, critics are now questioning previous government decisions related to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the needlessly long Iran-Iraq War, the high cost of Iran's nuclear program and Iran's support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

"Critics asking these questions consider themselves supporters of the 1979 Revolution and the Islamic government. They want to see meaningful change in that system," explains Reese. "So far, however, they are only asking questions and raising mild criticisms. To fully answer them would require questioning the leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a red line few Iranians are willing to cross."

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor


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