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Story Publication logo March 28, 2009

Getting Our Minds Into the Gutter

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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An estimated 35,000 people died last week as the 5th World Water Forum convened in Istanbul, Turkey. If you didn't hear the news, don't be surprised; the 35,000 deaths the week before, and the week before that didn't grab any headlines either.

One of the biggest challenges facing the thousands of delegates at the forum from water and sanitation NGO's is getting the media to take notice of the startling numbers of people dying each day from water borne illness, and the billions around the globe without access to clean water and sanitation.

Water and Sanitation Literature at the 5th World Water Forum

"Lack of media coverage has been a real frustration for the development community, specifically in the field of Water and Sanitation," said Ed Cain, President of the Hilton foundation, addressing myself and forty some other journalists from around the world convened by Swiss global journalism network Media 21 to cover the forum.

His sentiments were echoed by officials from Rotary International, UNICEF, PATH and many others from the public and private sector, who spoke to our group the hopes we'd help them bring public attention to their cause.

Getting a development issue like water access, or worse yet, sanitation, into the news is no easy task, especially in the place like the US, where few people perceive themselves as having a personal stake in the problem. Its easy to deceive yourself as to how compelling this problem is to the average American when you're reporting from a slum in Africa, or sitting in the middle of a conference on water and sanitation.

For a reality check, I like to picture the cabin of an airplane flight I recently took from Denver to Seattle as my imaginary audience. Most of my fellow passengers have never left the country. They are, like most humans, primarily concerned with the well being of their friends and family. They work hard, so when they aren't working they want to relax and be entertained. Most of them aren't "feel bad to feel good" people, but they might be "get mad to feel good" people – so they'd rather hear a story with a villain than one with some complex, systemic problem. And finally, if they're my age or younger, they're surrounded by a mainstream youth culture that is sarcastic, consumeristic, and emotionally detached.

Despite all this, they are at their core, compassionate people. Americans are unmatched when it comes to private relief donations for well-publicized natural disasters like the South Asian Tsunami. If we could monopolize the in-flight entertainment for the next 3 hours with presentations like the ones I saw at the Water Forum, most of my fellow passengers would get off the plane in Seattle as activists for global WATSAN improvement.

But if we have to compete with 30 other channels of in-flight programming, there's no way we're going to get their attention.

Unless we fight dirty.

I recently heard Rose George, author of The Big Neccessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters suggest that Matt Damon should be appointed the "celebrity spokesman for shit". It's a ridiculously good idea made even better by the blunt and humorous way it was delivered.

A headline like "Matt Damon Declares War on Third World Poop" would probably do more to further awareness of sanitation related deaths then mountains of glossy literature on the topic that was handed out at the Water Forum.

As one of our frustrated presenters commented before handing out yet another stat-filled pamphlet, "If we're lucky, it might end up as toilet paper."

Visit the Pulitzer Center's "Water Wars" Gateway "Your Stories" section to hear journalists and activists discussing the World Water Crisis and ways to address it. You can also share your own views on the issues!


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