Safe water is the most basic need for humans. It is life. And yet water crises – which are often man made and have solutions – never get the same attention as other humanitarian disasters such as an airstrike or a suicide bombing, even though polluted water can be far more deadly than direct conflict.
Water, hygiene, sanitation – or WASH in the aid agency world – is usually met with a disinterested shrug. In fact, most environmental issues are dismissed as soft news and in the past have been relegated to the science sections of newspapers or features shows on TV. This has meant programmes combating the issues are often woefully underfunded.
This needs to change. Before it is too late.
Last autumn the United Nations warned that we are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.
The report, the most comprehensive of its kind, shocked many. The looming spectre of global warming or climate change can no longer be reduced to tired images of polar bears sitting atop shrinking ice caps, implausible Hollywood fantasy films or discussions about five generations’ times. It is happening now.
From a water perspective, it’s complicated. I am no environmental journalist or expert, but last year I began an eight-month, seven-country investigation into water and conflict in the Middle East and beyond.
What I found is that, right now, chronic shortages are not only reaching alarming levels, largely due to climate change and accidental or deliberate mismanagement of resources, but that those shortages have an impact on every aspect of the conflicts.
In the countries I explored, water shortages are not only killing people due to thirst, but are complicating existing or igniting fresh domestic and international wars over resources.
The lack of clean water is behind a spike in violence against women, the abduction of children, the mass movement of people, the toppling of governments and even the recruitment to jihadi groups such as Isis.
At the heart of each shortage are solutions. In most instances there are not enough funding, know-how, tools or political will to implement the changes.
Water wars have begun.
The UN put one element of the problem in stark terms last week in a 16-nation study, released for World Water Day, that says every year 1.4 million people are killed by polluted water alone.
But more disturbing is their discovery that more children are killed by unsafe water each year than bullets and bombs in protracted war zones.
In fact, children under the age of five years old are 20 times more likely to die from dirty water than direct fighting.
Girls and women are particularly affected, as they become victims of sexual violence as they collect water, or venture out to use latrines.
Women struggle with menstrual hygiene, leading to disease, many even miss school if they are on their periods because of a lack of toilets. The list goes on.
It is clear from this that we can can no longer park environmental issues in their own section, as they have bled into all aspects of reality on the ground from business to gender issues.
This was was at the heart of a panel I hosted at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia this week.
Panelist Sven Egenter, editor-in-chief of Clean Energy Wire, said journalists have a duty to dig deeper, connect the dots between conflict and the environment, think outside the box, and ring those alarm bells. Because there are solutions.
“Our focus [at Clean Energy Wire] is the energy transition, but we cover electricity, mobility, business, efficiency, politics, international relations under the prism of energy transition,” he said.
“Our takeaway so far is that journalists from all beats should be tuned into this mega trend. Journalists must think outside their usual reporting boxes in terms of sources and ways of looking.”
Wim Zwijnenburg, who works for Netherlands-based NGO PAX, says attitudes towards the environment need to change from the misconception that it is just about “bees and butterflies”.
He works closely with Bellingcat using open-source data including satellite imagery to locate and track issues such as oil spills that have ravaged farmlands in the north of Iraq, sparking displacement, poverty and fears of recruitment to extremist groups.
“As soon as the guns fall silent, people go out. There is pollution because someone targeted a phosphate factory next to a river or a massive amount of water infrastructure has been destroyed. People cannot have access to water, they cannot use irrigation, it affects their livelihoods,” he says.
“It’s difficult to visualise. You can visualise someone stepping on a land mine… but how do you visualise someone getting sick or an outbreak of disease? It is less tangible – that is why you look at it using open-source information.”
Louise Sarrant, an environmental journalist covering the Middle East, says that environmental journalists are increasingly coming under fire from regimes as they uncover uncomfortable truths about bad practices.
For example, according to Amnesty International, at least 63 environmental activists and researchers were arrested in 2018.
Sarrant herself has written extensively on Egypt’s disastrous decision to import coal, and has described being stopped upon entry to Egypt repeatedly and intelligence officials watching her flat.
She says lack of data in many countries is impacting the ability to report. Particularly in places like Egypt, experts are nervous about coming forward.
“People are scared to talk if they can avoid it… that is a recent development,” she says.
And so it is up to newsrooms, editors and even readers to support those working on the ground on these essential investigations.