by Anam Zeb, Arif Chowdhury, Farshad Usyan, and Pranav Prakash

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No one warned us. No one’ says Kalum, ‘We only knew something was wrong because of the way the birds were chirping and the animals were behaving’. Kalum, 37, who hails from Panadura, was one of the thousands of victims of the 2004 tsunami that shook Sri Lanka to its very core. Kalum and his entire family were attending the funeral of a close relative at Galle when the tsunami hit, one of the most adversely impacted areas. For Kalum, the loss hit close to home, and was devastating.

I lost my son, Tusita, and my wife, Kumari, in the tsunami, 12 years ago’ he says. ‘I kept looking for them all these years, even though it was very difficult’. Kalums face becomes visibly strained as he describes his struggle to find his son and wife. Luckily, authorities united him with his son 3 years after the tsunami. ‘We identified him because he had a schoolbag with him that had some form of ID in it’ says Kalum, adding proudly that his son is 16 and enrolled in a school in Colombo. Kalum himself also lives in Colombo, working as domestic help in a local guest house. His search for Kumari continues.

One cannot help but wonder that if Kalum had received the right information at the right time, would he and his family have been spared this heartache?

Kalum smokes a cigarette on the roof of the house where he works for USD 150 a day. He continues to search for his wife. Photo by Farshad Usyan

Kalum smokes a cigarette on the roof of the house where he works for USD 150 a day. He continues to search for his wife. Photo by Farshad Usyan

THE SOUTH ASIAN CHALLENGE

There are clear signs that the impacts of climate change are already being felt throughout South Asia. Whilst the jury is out on the direct correlation between Tsunamis and climate change,  the Asia region as a whole experienced the most weather and climate-related disasters in the world between 2000 and 2008 and suffered the second highest proportion (27.5%) of total global economic losses (IPCC 2014).

This trend appears to have been concentrated and replicated throughout South Asia even past 2008. The major climate change impacts that have been observed throughout the south Asian region include observable temperature trends that indicate that between 1901 and 2012 there were more warm days and fewer colder days. And it is not just that there are more warm days- these warmer days are also more extreme.

For example in 2015, Pakistan was hit by a devastating heat-wave that killed almost 2000 people in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city. There has also been increased variability in the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events- such as in the case of the Maharashtra floods in India in 2005. Sea level rise is another risk, and by the 2070s, in terms of population and assets exposed to coastal flooding, the Fifth Assessment Report indicates that the Asian port cities that could be most at risk will be Kolkata, Mumbai and Dhaka.

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With so much to lose from Climate Change, some of the most vulnerable countries have no choice but to adapt to its impacts. One of the fundamental requirements of adaptation is information. And that information is considered inaccessible by most South Asians due to the perception that it is a ‘technical’ subject. One of the best ways to dispel this perception is by communicating climate change through mediums that are accessible, understandable and engaging- through journalism.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan has been suffering from the effects of the climate change. It has been so severe that the Global Adaptation Index ranked Afghanistan as the 17th most vulnerable country to the effects of the climate change in 2014. The country is particularly vulnerable to flood and drought. On average, Afghanistan faces a drought every 30 years.  The most severe in recent history is considered to be the catastrophic drought that struck between 1998-2002. This was due to a slight decrease in rainfall during the spring season from 1960, and a rise in temperature by 0.6 degrees.

However, reporting on climate change in Afghanistan rarely ever covers the issues of climate change, despite the obvious vulnerability. ‘Most media reports are from outside Afghanistan addressing the current situation based on published research and reports on climate change’ says Mati Siddiqi, a prominent journalist from Afghanistan. He also points out that reporting on climate change in Afghanistan rarely gets published in Afghanistan itself. ‘ Even though sevel reports of Afghanistan have been published to map the whole situation, it hasn’t been published specifically in the Afghan media’.

A man tries to put out a fire in Afghanistan. Photo by Farshad Usyan

A man tries to put out a fire in Afghanistan. Photo by Farshad Usyan

This is surprising, considering that more than one third of Afghan households depend entirely on rain-fed agriculture, which is now under threat. This makes Afghans highly sensitive to climate change. This sensitivity is multi layered and based on other factors such as socio-economic, cultural and political factors.

There is a mere absence of interest internationally for this topic in spite the vulnerability of Afghanistan has been addressed several times. To bring this issue to the attention of the global media, Afghans need to be more involved in international debates regarding adaptation of climate change.

‘Unfortunately; says Mati, ‘ Climate change is not newsworthy for Afghan civil society since it has been overshadowed by the severe war situation, as well as illiteracy and a lack of mobility for reporters’.

INDIA

The absence of tribals and dalits within newsrooms results in a huge blind-spot for environmental journalism in India. Environmental concerns, which are fuelled in part by climate change, disproportionately affect the poor – who often tend to be on the lower end of the caste spectrum.”- a former reporter with The Hindu.

The quandary of equitable representation and equality of opportunity is one that has plagued India since its inception as an independent nation nearly seventy years ago. The vast expanses of the subcontinent are home to a multitude of people divided, and often times considered separate, by a notion of caste, which is decided simply by the accident of one’s birth.

One of the oldest forms of social divisions in the world, the sheer expansiveness of India’s castes and sub-castes numbers in the tens of thousands, creating a treacherous web of exclusion, presumed superiorities and a vicious cycle of constrained opportunities, especially pertaining to economic mobility.

With over 25% of the country’s population belonging to either the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes categories as described by the Constitution of India, one would presume that the representation of these sections in the ranks of the mainstream media is at least proportionate.

From the hills of Nagallapuram, in India. Photo by Pranav Prakash

From the hills of Nagallapuram, in India. Photo by Pranav Prakash

Most of those who have already come across this debate in the national context would also be familiar with the Cooper-Uniyal inquiry of 1996 that famously tried, and failed, to identify even a single SC or ST journalist among the top brass of the media at the time.

While the percentage of journalists from these castes today, twenty years after the inquiry, is still abysmal relative to the, roughly, 300 million people who fall under these categories, that which has become an increasingly telling sign is the lack of diversity in voices, particularly on issues that were deemed insignificant over a decade ago.

The federal government in India has afforded climate change the attention it deserves and set, for the country, ambitious climate goals while expanding on renewable energy and promising to ramp up solar and wind power. With the recent ratification of the Paris Agreement and the deepening of ties with the US in combating climate change, Prime Minister Modi has cleared the route for India to remain a regional climate change champion.

To combat climate change, however, and to develop adaptation strategies that can be scaled across the region, it would require collaboration of a kind that the present disposition of the mainstream media may not permit it to cultivate.

Adaptation strategies are frequently developed at the regional level, even autonomously, by local communities. But these indigenous adaptation strategies are rarely highlighted in national media since the communities that inculcate them belong to castes that rarely get the spotlight in national dailies, particularly ones in English.

The future of successful climate change adaptation in India hinges on the ability of the national media to integrate voices that have been sidelined for far too long. It is wonderful to imagine the possibility that the challenges that climate change may throw may already be battled against with success, somewhere in the boundless stretches

BANGLADESH

Anwar Hossen, a professor at Dhaka University, Bangladesh, laments the lack of climate change reporting in the country. ‘The newspapers are not publishing enough reports or articles because their staff does not have the academic and professional training to report on the climate change issues’ he says. ‘They (journalists) can understand the irregularities of seasonal patterns and different types of climate concerns, but they are mot able to link it to the theoretical concepts underpinning climate change’.

This raises alarm bells. Bangladesh is a highly vulnerable country to climate change.Sea level rise poses significant threats that would inundate 18 percent of total land of Bangladesh including directly impact on 11 percent of the population, if the issue is not addressed

This photo was taken in the Sundarbunds, the jewel of Bangladesh and home to its tigers. The area is under threat of sea level rise, salinity. Photo by Arif Chowdry

This photo was taken in the Sundarbunds, the jewel of Bangladesh and home to its tigers. The area is under threat of sea level rise, salinity. Photo by Arif Chowdry

According to recent studies, about 39 million people have been displaced from their place of origin because of natural disasters since 1970 and by 2050 more than 6 to 8 million will be displaced because of increasing global temperature and sea level rise. Furthermore, 17 percent land of Bangladesh will be flooded and 30 percent of food production will be damaged including adverse impacts on agriculture, land, water resources, health and energy etc.

Although Bangladesh is facing tremendous impacts of climate change in social, physical, environmental and economic aspects, but the frequency of the reporting is not adequate to push the government into action.

Experts agree that capacity building and awareness raising, especially amongst journalists who can then disseminate it in the public are necessary. Anwar Hossen is optimistic that these ways happen, ‘Recently, some universities in Bangladesh are providing this training and hopefully they will take a leading role in future climate reporting’.

PAKISTAN

‘Climate Change narrative gained traction only around 2009 when there was a lot of hype for COP 15 in Copenhagen, and journalists were recognized as a stakeholder in the dialogue’ explains Afia Salam, one of Pakistan’s leading journalists on climate change. This was a rather late start to media reporting on possibly one of the greatest threats to Pakistan’s very existence.

In 2014, Pakistan was ranked as the 5th most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. This is not surprising, considering the quite literal flooding of the country with extreme events for the past two decades. The 2010 floods, triggered by unusually intense monsoon rainfall, were termed by the UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon as ‘the worst disaster I have ever seen’. More than 2000 people were killed, and an estimated 11 million were made homeless. This has set the scene for a further escalade of extreme events such as GLOF, cyclones, storm surges and hurricanes; not to mention slow onset disasters such as droughts, temperature changes and sea level rise.

Children on the coast of Thatta, Pakistan, play near the shore . Thatta is under direct threat from Sea Level Rise. Photo: Anam Zeb

Children on the coast of Thatta, Pakistan, play near the shore . Thatta is under direct threat from Sea Level Rise. Photo: Anam Zeb

A disconnect of climate journalists from the actual, on ground impacts of climate change on local communities may explain why climate change reporting has not been frequent or compelling. ‘ While there has been an increase in the number of journalists since then (COP 15) who concertedly take up climate change and its impacts in their writing, there is a woeful lack of opportunities for them to actually do field stories. Desk stories can never compete with field stories for the depth and understanding of the issue’ laments Afia.

With a lack of information on exactly what communities are facing as a consequence of climate change, citizens lack the awareness to push their governments to take action on climate change.
According to Afia, ‘This shortcoming in itself presents itself as a potential to scale up Climate Change journalists so they can serve as a bridge between those bearing the brunt, and those making policies that are supposed to bring them relief’.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND JOURNALISM

With many other socioeconomic and contextual factors influencing community’s abilities to adapt, it is difficult to draw direct correlations between effective adaptation and media reports on climate change. However, individual cases emerge that may suggest that particularly in the case of adaptation and preparation for disasters, media can be an important influence.

Consider the case of Bangladesh.  A flood prone country, in 1998 over 75% of the country was inundated in flood water, causing the death of over a thousand people. 30 million people were made homeless, in addition to heavy infrastructure and livelihood losses. Recently, in 2015, Bangladesh was again hit by catastrophic flooding. In this case however, the death toll was just under 20 persons, and 200,000 persons displaced due to the flooding, possibly due to better information sharing and adaptation strategies, linked to better information availability on flood impacts.

Similarly, in Pakistan, there was a devastating heatwave in 2015 that killed close to 2000 people in Karachi due to dehydration and heat stroke. In 2016, temperatures in Pakistan began to soar again- the difference this time was there was considerable reporting on conventional and social media on potential heatwaves and their impacts, which led people to be much more conscious of their safety during a heatwave.

Although many other factors come into play in both these cases, it may be observed that in this time period, the number and quality of articles on climate change on different mediums has improved.

In fact, the continually expanding landscape of climate change journalism across South Asia, with its recognized failings, has arguably left a dent in the lives of people in ways it could have never imagined, in the past. The narratives that these writers have come across, and the ones that are to come, leave little doubt in the potential that climate change journalism will have in the winters to come.

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