Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone home?
The world’s gravest public health crisis is unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation. Diseases related to this problem kill 5x more kids than HIV/AIDS, and twice as many as malaria. Four billion cases of debilitating diarrhea occur each year, and diarrheal diseases alone kill well over two million kids on an annual basis.
So, the good news: The world came together last week at the Stockholm International Water Institute’s World Water Week to discuss precisely this issue.
And the bad news: the three of you who read this blog are hearing more about World Water Week through this medium than most other people through what I'll humbly call more popular media.
Those mainstream media may well tackle water and climate change, ocean conservation, the bottled water industry, water as a human right, privatization and related issues. But they shy away from unsafe water as the gravest – and most solvable – global public health challenge. This was manifested by the paucity of coverage of World Water Week in at least the U.S. media. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post had even a poorly-turned phrase on World Water Week. The only Associated Press story picked up (according to a Google news search) in the U.S. media focused entirely on bio fuels, never even mentioning the severity of this global problem. (Way to go John Sauer at Water Advocates for tracking this.)
Solving the world’s drinking water and sanitation crisis is difficult – it is not a soundbite or silver bullet issue. As my cohort Dennis Warner of Catholic Relief Services says, it’s not rocket science – it’s harder than rocket science. How long did it take to train your kids to wash their hands after they use the bathroom? Do you wash your hands after each trip to the john even today? What’s our water infrastructure financing gap in the U.S. up to now?
But solving this problem is possible. How many English die of cholera in 2007? How many Japanese die of diarrhea? How many Americans have guinea worm, schistosomiasis or malaria?
The unsafe water issue will soon drive the international development agenda itself – it’s unfortunately a matter of time before the media are forced to come to terms with this global challenge whether they like it or not.
I suggest instead that the 1.1 billion people without safe drinking water throughout the developing world need the U.S. and European media to lead the target. As the NYT looks to the FT for story ideas, and as the Economist looks to The New Yorker, one well-placed story on unsafe water as the world’s biggest cause of preventable infant/child mortality and morbidity will punch well above its weight (and win a Pulitzer or two, people).
Some get it: one particularly insightful, clever piece comes from Carl Ganter at the Pacific Institute’s Circle of Blue: Navigating the Mainstream: The Challenge of Making Water Issues Matter. Read it and visit Circle of Blue. Seriously.
Another: Gil Garcetti (yes, that Gil Garcetti) is now an amazing professional photographer covering the world’s water crisis. See his new book Water is Key.
Another: Matt Damon’s new movie Running the Sahara is scheduled for release this fall.
There are stories lined up - there are high profile testimonials lined up – there are convincing water experts lined up. If that’s not enough, there’s always the crushing grip of reason which is tightening. We need to act – there are billions of the world’s poorest waiting for their governments to properly prioritize this issue. There is an opportunity for the Western media to get out ahead of this issue and pull the world along.