2015 UN-Water Annual International Zaragoza Conference. Water and Sustainable Development: From Vision to Action. 15-17 January 2015

Interviewing Ranjita Biswas

Ranjita Biswas, Media/Author Brahmaputra and the Assam Valley, India

Ranjita Biswas

What water-themed work have you been working on (reporting, editing research)?

I have been reporting, editing copies by other writers on environ in my capacity as editor of the feature service I run (Trans World Features: www.twfindia.in) and also do research on water-related issues.

What areas of your work in water have generated the most significant public response?

While writing the non-fiction book Brahmaputra and the Assam Valley (Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2013) I researched the effect of regular flooding on the Assam Valley in North East India by the mighty Brahmaputra river which originates in Tibet. Though the floods create great loss, the river has also made the valley one of the most fertile. The book has been favorably reviewed in leading Indian newspapers and magazines and has generated interest about this region in other parts of India. With China building a dam on the Brahmaputra in Tibet, there is apprehension that the valley might either face more flooding with release of excess water, or even thinning down of the river in the catchment area to affect livelihood in the valley depending mostly on agriculture. I am looking at these issues now. Another story that has made an impact is about the biggest inhabited river island in the world, Majuli in the Assam Valley in the North East. Here I witnessed the havoc created by the annual flood due to silting and erosion which have denuded people’s livelihood. No solution seems to be in sight: ‘Erosion Threatens an Island Culture’ (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106136)

My reporting on the Sunderbans, the biggest inhabited delta in the world, looked at various aspects like the effect of salination as people opt for pawn-culture and its adverse effect on paddy cultivation.

What barriers are there to reporting on environment and sustainable development issues in your region (eg. lack of public interest, censorship, pressure from advertisers etc)?

With India going for economic liberalization from the 1990s, though it was necessary to open up the market, one effect has been escalating consumerism. Readers’ preference for so-called ‘lifestyle’ stories has been cited as reason for pressure by advertisers on the publications to feature more this kind of story and as a result has shrunk space for stories on sustainable development, environment etc. It is often difficult, and especially for independent journalists, to get the attention of editors to story pitches in these areas. Saying that, India also has many dedicated online websites, magazines and regional language publications which still encourage developmental stories and they do encourage these topics. For independent journalists, however, surviving economically on these few options often prove difficult.

What is tough to sell to editors in water/sustainable development/environment? Why do you think this is the case? Please detail with specific examples from your experience.

As explained above, editors are rather reluctant to give much space to such stories, unlike in the past, say, as in the 70s-80s. To be fair, it could be also pressure from the management with an eye to profits. Personally, I have found it easier to approach particular feature services, niche magazines or online websites to pitch stories on sustainable development. I also have the slight advantage of being the editor of a feature service (Trans World Features: www.twfindia.in) I do not have to wait for approval of a story. Besides writing, I also encourage other writers to contribute stories on environ and sustainable development.

What do you feel has been successful and unsuccessful in your work in this area? Please detail with specific examples from your experience

On the scale of successful/unsuccessful, I would say I have been rather fortunate being able to write and publish articles of choice on developmental issues, gender vis-a vis environ, etc. For example, lack of toilets and water and its effect on women in rural India was readily accepted ‘When Not To Go To School’ (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106136) which has appeared widely in the international press. I wrote the story ‘Island in the Sun’ on the Sunderbans delta of the West Bengal state, predicted to be submerged eventually by the rising sea level as a result of global warming. But here I wrote about how solar power is changing the peoples’ lives. This story also received good attention.

Please present your proposals for communications and media projects. This is your chance to pitch the UN.

Increasing the capacity of local storage and recharge through watershed development are crucial for water availability, particularly since a billion plus population with a large section of farmers is bound to result in more water requirement and over-extraction of groundwater.

Watershed development on an urgent basis, and boosting storage are important undoubtedly but there is scope for exploring ways to revive traditional water storage facilities too. Tanks, ponds etc., a part of the countryside for centuries have now become neglected and are in a sorry state as people have moved to modern equipment like pumps etc. Even in arid states like Rajasthan, Gujarat etc. step-wells, baolis etc. which were built with traditional knowledge made it sure that rain harvesting made sure that people did not suffer from water shortage even in the dry summer. Today some NGOs and government agencies have revived these old systems of water storage to good result. The huge Pushkar Lake in Rajasthan, a holy pilgrimage site, had gone to seed but with the revival scheme it is now back to its pristine state.
These are important lessons in trying to tackle water denudation from a local perspective but can be integrated into the schemes to solve water shortage problems in a holistic way.
Another example: In eastern India where I live, the lush countryside with paddy as the main staple, every village has one or two ponds/tanks. But they have become derelict in most places. Women have to carry water from hand-pumps walking long distances. Efforts to revive these traditional water sources, and methods of irrigation followed for generations can be examined.
For example, the Bodos, a tribal community of Assam in North East India in at the Bhutan foothills have revived their traditional canal system – locally called Dong. Local NGO Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM) devised a simple, cheap yet effective method of irrigation with the help of the community

You are expected to produce some work at the conference. What do you plan to do?

I plan to do a couple of stories culled from the knowledge and experience at the conference. During the conference I shall also be reporting to our associate website www.indiablooms.com as also to www.twfindia.in. They are linked to other websites, Google subscribers etc. and are picked up by them and get a good exposure.

Anything to add? Suggestions for questions to add to the debate would be welcome.

Water, its need and scarcity, is not an isolated problem. While discussing the various aspects of the problem, it would also be useful to exchange good practice stories from participating countries and share knowledge. In India there are now some ‘water-crusaders’ whose work is very inspiring. Sharing stories of out-of-the –box thinking has its own benefit in a problem which is not confined to one region.

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>> Accommodation
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The vision

>> Rio+20
>> Water and sustainable development
>> Global commitments on water
>> A post-2015 global goal for water
>> Water and the Open Working Group (OWG)
>> The role of actors involved

The action

>> Capacity development
>> Financing and economic instruments
>> Governance frameworks
>> Technology

Action on…

>> Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)
>> Water Resources Management
>> Water Quality
>> Risk management

14 January: Pre-Conference Side events and Technical Visits

>> Technical visit: La Cartuja
>> Technical visit: The Ebro River Basin Authority and its Automatic System for Hydrologic Information (SAIH)
>> Technical visit: Expo + Water Park
>> New sources: Wastewater reuse
>> Local level actions in decentralized water solidarity towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals
>> Water Footprint Assessment
>> Technological advances and Water Policy
>> Cultivando Agua Boa Programme
>> CODIA and water and energy in LAC
>> The fulfillment of the human right to water and sanitation

15 January: Setting the scene and the context

>> Achieving sustainable water for all in LAC
>> Achieving water security for Asia and the Pacific
>> Ensuring implementation of the water-related SDGs in Europe
>> Setting the scene

16 January: Whose action?

>> Academia
>> Business
>> Civil society
>> Governments and local authorities
>> Media and Communicators

17 January: Integrating knowledge and the way forward

>> Multi-stakeholder dialogue on tools for implementation


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