'Where is your toilet?' A more polished version can be, 'Where is your restroom?' I have learnt to consciously ask this question to almost everyone, including militants in camps whom I have met on my reporting assignments. The instant reaction is of embarrassment. Issues like open defecation, menstruation and sanitary pads, toilets, waste disposal are considered very private, something not to be discussed in public and definitely not with a journalist.
Sanitation is a taboo topic, even in everyday discourse. It is like an abandoned terrain, nobody wants to tread on. For a journalist like me reporting on a wide-range of issues from conflict, politics and society, talking about this issue seemed trivial and intrusive as well. But, I have picked up the nuances of this prohibited topic from the South Asia Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN) which was held in the capital of India, New Delhi, in 2008. I could get a bird's eye view of the different water related issues at the World Water Forum at Istanbul, Turkey in 2009.
The United Nations had declared the year 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation in conjunction with the Water for Life Decade. Worldwide there are roughly 2.6 billion people who do not have access to basic sanitation. The goal of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation is to help raise awareness of this crisis and hopefully accelerate progress towards reaching the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) and cutting the number of people without access to basic sanitation in half by the year 2015.
The Economic Impact of Sanitation in Indonesia, a report issued by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) of the World Bank, shows that in 2006 negative impacts of poor sanitation cost the country an estimated $6.3 billion, or 2.3 percent of gross domestic product. Though the World Bank has significantly increased its lending for sanitation and wastewater projects since 2002, sanitation remains a challenge for the poor already grappling with the effects of global food and energy prices, conflict and natural disasters.
Water and sanitation continue to be big issues despite prolonged official and community level efforts at improving coverage. Only one of three Indians has access to improved sanitation facilities (including improved latrines). The lack of toilet facilities in many areas also presents a major health risk and open defecation is rampant even in urban areas of India. It was estimated in 2002 by the World Health Organisation that around 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhoea.
The conference was an eye-opener in many ways. Though I am not a health reporter, I noted that sanitation was present in a veiled form in many of the social issues that I wrote about. For instance, on one of my assignments to report on the use of pesticides in a few tea estates in Assam, a state in northeast India, I found out that many tea garden labourers were dying of tuberculosis. In fact, many families had fallen prey to the disease. It was a shocker for me as tuberculosis is a curable disease. As I probed further, it became apparent that lack of hygiene and sanitation were the main perpetrators. I did not realise that I was doing a sanitation story.
On the brighter side, during a visit to a village in Kurukshetra in Haryana, a state in North India, I observed that low-cost toilets had eliminated the need for open defecation. It was a big relief for women in villages who used to wait till the evening or early morning to answer the call of nature. It made me think of women in the villages near my hometown who have silently endured all this. Till I attended the conference I had never thought about sanitation as a major issue which was worth writing about.
The state of Assam is flood-prone and my maid, who comes early every morning, told me a harrowing tale of how they defecate during floods. They make a makeshift boat out of a banana stem and wade through the waters to look for a dry spot to defecate. In case it gets dark it becomes all the more difficult for a widow like her who doesn't have a man to row her makeshift 'boat'. Very often they encounter water snakes and leeches. She told me that during the rainy season, some of them even starve themselves so that they do not have to go out to defecate. And for those who suffer from diarrhoea, a common occurrence during floods, life becomes a living hell.
I report from a region which is conflict-torn. I cover the seven northeastern states of the Indian Union which find space in the national media only when there is a major disaster or violence. Talking about sanitation issues here seems out of place. Apart from that I have realised over the years that journalists tend to become arrogant with age and feel that issues like sanitation are the preserve of 'development' or 'environment' journalists.
Such compelling stories and the sidelining of a basic issue made me want to launch an initiative that could make a difference. Post SACOSAN, I decided to set up a listserv called 'The Sanitation Scribes' to share news and information with a dedicated group of journalists interested in this issue. There were no costs involved, all it needed was patience.
The response to 'The Sanitation Scribes' has been encouraging. One member from Pakistan regularly updates us on sanitation issues in his country. Now we are a team of journalists across South Asia who share information. While inducting new members I make sure the person is aware of the issue. Those who are unaware are initiated by being made to realize that it is an issue which is fundamental to all human beings.
Some of our members have never written about sanitation issues but patiently read our mails. We even have business journalists as members and I encourage them ponder over and write about the economics of sanitation. 'The Sanitation Scribes' is a humble effort to bridge the gap between mainstream and marginalised issues in media and to multiply the breed of 'Sanitation Journalists'.
(Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She blogs at http://thesanitationscribes.blogspot.com )