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- Environmental Journalism Key to Sustainable Development in Africa

Environmental Journalism Key to Sustainable Development in Africa
Catching the big scoop of the day has been the longstanding pinnacle of journalism – from war to financial crises the media has covered it. Now, as people and governments grapple with balancing urban growth, sustainability and preservation, the story of the day is shown again to be much more than an ephemeral headline. Environmental degradation and the depletion of vital resources are examples of the kind of complex topics that need to be incorporated in both the agenda’s of politicians and the media.

Around the world, people are suffering and dying from lack of safe water and inadequate sanitation. In Africa, the situation is particularly grim: there are over 300 million people who do not have access to clean water, 313 million who lack adequate sanitation, and an average of 1.6 million African children who die each year as a result.

With this harrowing picture, the African media is faced with the pressing responsibility of being a watchdog for environmental issues. Unsafe water and poor sanitation standards are the results of a complex web of factors – from corrupt local politics to discordant geopolitics and from the affects of industrialization to the exponential increase in the continent's population – and the media should play a prominent role in telling this story. The media can indeed influence the direction environmental policy and growth will take in Africa. However, since these problems emerged coverage on water and sanitation in the African media has been insufficient.

In an attempt to highlight its importance, RAP 21 spoke to water and gender rights advocate Rosemary Enie. As President/CEO of Women International Coalition Organization (WICO) Africa, Gender Ambassador of Gender and Water Alliance (GWA) in the Netherlands and the founder of the Pan Africa Centre for the Environment (PACE), Enie is part of a movement to better water and sanitation conditions across Africa through utilising the power of the media.

"Visiting countries across the continent, I've had the opportunity to read through daily newspapers, magazines or watch major national channels. From a water professional point of view, water and sanitation issues have very low coverage when compared to other issues such as politics, sports be it through television, radio or print media," said Enie.

"South Africa is one of the countries that has done considerably well, though there is still room for improvement. The Kenyan media also publishes water and sanitation issues but I believe there is still much to be done generally in the continent," she continued. In Zambia, The Post can also be an example for such reporting where articles on water frequent the pages on a weekly basis. Still, a recent article in the paper said, "These issues often make some of our people uncomfortable. Even the media's coverage of these issues is relatively low."

In an attempt to improve the situation Enie said, "Every development issue such as agriculture, industrial development, maternal health, infant health, education, combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, maleria etc, empowering women, eradicating poverty and hunger and ensuring environmental sustainability have a direct/indirect relation with the provision of water and sanitation within the households and communities across Africa."

"Over 60 shared river basins dominate the African landscape but weak regional cooperation has limited the benefits to the continent and reduced the effectiveness of water governance necessary for development," Enie explained.

Further, all of this, Enie continued is "compounded by steady environmental degradation, depletion, and contamination of water resources as well as related factors such as climate change, desertification, flooding and erosion." It is these phenomena that have resulted with new phrases such as 'Water wars' to enter our lexicon.

In response, two international targets commonly referred to as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for water and sanitation, have been set along with continental accords such as the African Water Vision. The goal is to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water and proper sanitation by 2015 and further improvements to be reached by 2025 with the latter.

In the case of Africa this is an especially arduous task to achieve. According to Enie, "Preliminary assessment has revealed that an investment of US $ 20 billion is required over 25 years (2000-2025) to attain the MDGs and African Water Vision targets." However, Enie said, "The pervasive poverty condition coupled with slow economic growth and high level of indebtedness in the continent inhibits investment in water resources development."

Consequently, Enie said: "It is necessary to bring water and sanitation issues in Africa into the media scene with more vigour. The media has a very important role in terms of public awareness raising and education on water and sanitation issues. It can also provide an enabling environment for public forum debates leading to Africa's water and food security and sustainable development." And at the crux, Enie said, "the challenge is to manage the people that depend on and make decisions about water resources management in the continent at all levels."

Across Africa, as people scramble for water, governments and the private sector often carry out poorly designed water and sanitation delivery projects to under-served people. "The problem of corruption within the water and sanitation sector in Africa is one of the major challenges. Coverage of these issues needs to be brought to the public debate to fight this evil and promote water security," said Enie.

Insufficient coverage results from a number factors including lack of scientific and environmental knowledge, little journalistic training on the subject, and pressures from powerful local interests and advertisers who support media outlets. To combat these barriers it is necessary to creat multilateral partnerships that extend from the local grassroots level to top policy makers. "The media should establish a strong partnership with other stakeholders such as Members of Parliaments (MPs), Government Agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs), for water and sanitation information dissemination, public awareness raising and education," said Enie.

In line with this, Enie is spearheading a movement across Africa to bring water and sanitation into the media's agenda. To begin, WICO Africa, Enie's organization, conducted a study on "how to enable the media to build upon the growing interest of the public in information dissemination, public awareness raising and education on water and sanitation issues."

Coined the "Blue Revolution African Campaign (BRAC)," WICO Africa, PACE and the African Water Information Desk (AFRICAWIDE) in collaboration with organisations based in Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Senegal, and Benin started a campaign in September 2008 to give impetus to change environmental policy. The goal is to establish relations between the media, MPs and other stakeholders to increase dialogue and awareness on water and sanitation issues.

AFRICAWIDE also set up the Water Education and Training (WET) Africa Fund, which includes financing for the media, to ensure that journalists acquire the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to treat water and sanitation issues appropriately in the public forum. "It is quite evident that nature cannot speak like humans.

There is therefore a need for journalists and the media to effectively understand this and play an important role to enable the society to think and speak for nature," said Enie.

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