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Story Publication logo December 20, 2010

Water and Sanitation in West Africa: Journalists Join Forces


Along the banks of the Bani river, Mali. December, 2010.
Along the banks of the Bani river, Mali. December, 2010.

When journalist Dieudonné Soubeaga visits his family's village in Burkina Faso, he's witness to conditions he can't accept: his parents have no choice but to drink unsafe water and lack access to proper sanitation facilities.

For Makéba Tchibozo in Benin, it is the disconnect between her ability to drink--and even wash with--clean water and the plight of people in the same city, who still lack safe drinking water, that motivates her to report on water and sanitation. She believes journalists have a responsibility to represent the under-represented and to hold government officials, who claim to do just that, accountable to their commitments.

Francois Koame, a journalist in Togo, is faced daily with signs that the capital city of Lomé lacks the sanitation infrastructure to support the city's burgeoning population.

Frederic Some, a television reporter in Burkina Faso, questioned why months after a major investment into cleaning up a local canal, no progress could be seen.

These are some of the stories I heard during a recent visit to Mali about what inspired journalists in the region to focus their attention on water and sanitation issues.

I was invited there to participate as an advisor in a workshop for journalists from West Africa committed to creating a regional network to raise awareness of water and sanitation issues. Organized by WaterAid in West Africa and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), the workshop brought together journalists from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo.

These West African nations are all struggling with some of the most challenging water and sanitation problems in the world.

It was an intense three days of exercises designed to define the needs, obstacles and opportunities for collaboration amongst journalists across the region, and to develop a realistic strategy to launch the network in the coming months.

Their challenge of drawing attention to water and sanitation issues echoed the same challenges we face in the US. Journalists Idrissa Camara from Mali, Omoniyi Kolade Omojugbagbe from Nigeria, and Traore Amadou Daouda from Niger talked about how the commercial nature of news makes issues like water and sanitation hard to "sell." For Francois Koame, it's fellow journalists' lack of understanding of what the real sanitation problems are.

Systemic crises like water and sanitation require a long-term commitment and financial support to facilitate this kind of in-depth reporting. But where the money should come from is less obvious.

NGOs working on water and sanitation and journalists focused on this sector share the common goal of raising the visibility of the issues. So collaboration in this area seems natural. But this raises important questions about the relationship between NGOs and journalists as they serve their respective missions. After all, it's also the responsibility of journalists to report on the work of NGOs in the sector, so their independence is critical.

It's not an easy balancing act and the Pulitzer Center has worked hard over the past few years to find the right model. We've sought financial support from foundations and individuals with an interest in these issues, and with their help we've supported over a dozen international reporting projects on water and sanitation. In the process collaborating with dozens of NGOs to make these reporting projects as strong as possible. Our reporting serves as resources for organizations doing programmatic work and their constituencies become important vehicles to amplify the reporting we support.

Coordination between journalists reporting on WASH issues in West Africa holds great potential at the local, national, regional, and international scale and the Pulitzer Center is excited to be part of this initiative. We hope to find ways to further the work of these talented journalists in the region as part of our own commitment to raising awareness of these issues.

Nathalie Applewhite is Managing Director of the Pulitzer Center.


navy halftone illustration of a boy carrying two heavy buckets


Water and Sanitation

Water and Sanitation

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