Rachel McKee of the Oak Foundation in Geneva recounts how Asia journalists are working together to spur essential changes through their reporting from the field.
Deep in the heart of the Himalayas, the Koshi River begins its journey as a tiny stream. It makes its way down the northern slopes of Tibet, gains momentum as it traverses Nepal, joins the River Ganges in the northern Bihar region of India, and then, finally, rushes into the Bay of Bengal.
For thousands of years, people have lived on its banks, thankful for its life-giving waters, but in recent times, that has begun to change. Development activities and climate change have meant disrupted weather patterns, causing flooding, landslides and prolonged periods of drought. “We used to bring water from a spring a few kilometres away, but now it has dried up,” says Laxmi Magur, a local woman living in the Muktin district of Dhankuta, Nepal. “We have taps in every house, but no water. It has been so hard.”
In addition, Nepal’s largest hydropower project is being built on the Tamakoshi River, one of the tributaries of the Koshi. In this earthquake-prone zone, this causes unrest among the villagers in the region. “If it bursts in the future, our area will be swept away,” said 81-year-old Sarimaya Rai, from Barah Kshetra in the Sunsari district, where the dam is being built.
Laxmi and Sarimaya’s stories were two of several recorded by and made into a series of reports by Ramesh Bhushal, an environmental journalist based in Nepal. Currently a correspondent and coordinator for thethirdpole.net, a South Asian environmental online magazine, he travelled along the tributaries of the Koshi River in 2016 with photographer Nabin Baral. Together they reported on the challenges faced by people living in the region. (You can read more about their adventures here: https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/koshi-basin/.)
Climate change impact across three countries
The effects of what happens upstream on the Koshi can be felt over an enormous area spanning three countries. The reporting on climate change effects by locally-based journalists is helping to bring these far-flung issues to the attention of government officials, who have the power to do something about it, as well as into the homes of people around the world. Because, let’s face it, without on-the-spot reporting, those far removed from the scenario are less likely to confront the issue. Furthermore, journalists need to use a form of story-telling that everyone understands.
Indeed, Bhushal’s series designed to raise the concerns of ordinary people in this remote region has made some impacts at higher levels. While it is impossible to draw a causal link, it is thought that some related pieces published in The Hindu may have inspired India’s Union Ministry of Water Resources to file an affidavit to the Indian Supreme Court opposing the building of any more dams in the Himalayan northern Indian State of Uttarakhand. (See The Hindu story)
In addition, one of Bhushal’s stories pointed out the risk of floods in a region around the Nepal-Tibet border and that an early warning system that had been installed was in poor condition. Thereafter the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology fixed the problem quickly. A hydrologist at the department told Ramesh, “I was following your story, and as you pointed out, the early warning system wasn’t functioning during that time due to some technical problem. It’s working now and regularly sending warnings.”
Internews, an international media development organization, has established the Earth Journalism Network to strengthen support for journalists like Ramesh Bhushal. “Media hubs can be credited with getting these stories to larger, more diverse audiences,” says James Fahn, Global Director of Environmental Programmes at Internews.
Today, as ordinary people are starting to feel the startling impacts of climate change effects on their lives, on-the-spot journalists are essential in highlighting its human dimension, particularly in developing countries. Not only are they well-positioned to raise awareness of the hardships people are facing at regional, national and international levels, but they are also central to raising awareness about community-led efforts to build resilience in the face of climate change devastation.
On-the-spot reporting enables ordinary people to share their experiences
It is also crucial for donors, governments and aid organizations to incorporate credible if not critical, solutions-oriented approaches as part of their support for journalistic outreach in the public interest, rather than PR. This is particularly important at a time when disaster risk reduction precautions could significantly limit the impact of earthquakes, floods, landslides and ocean surges on towns, villages and countryside.
Because, if you are a farmer who can no longer grow rice on the land you inherited from your great-grandparents, wouldn’t you want to know what others in a similar situation are doing? On-the-spot reporting provides a platform from which ordinary people can share how they are adapting to these challenges, and allows them to share what they are learning.
“Those hit first by climate change are in a really important position of leadership, as the first to respond and adapt,” says Heather McGray from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund(CJRF), a grant-making initiative dedicated to helping women, youth and indigenous peoples create and share their own solutions for resilience. “Instead of calling them the ‘canaries in a coal mine’, we need narratives that help people see how they’re actively creating powerful solutions that others can learn from. Media hubs are invaluable in helping to raise their voices.”
The growing role of philanthropy in helping journalists to reach out
Philanthropy and not-for-profit organizations working on climate justice recognise the power of timely journalism and are getting behind media hubs that support strong local reporting in developing countries. For example, through the Earth Journalism Network project, local reporters in regions around the world can help raise awareness of the concerns of ordinary people in the face of climate change. It also trains journalists to report more effectively on such issues, and gathers them together at events so that they can learn from each other.
For example, Malu Pedersen works as a radio reporter for KNR Radio, the largest radio network in Greenland. “There is virtually no coverage of climate change issues in local Greenlandic media,” Malu told Internews’ Fahn. “While we have reporters in the larger towns, it is difficult to travel to more remote parts of the country to find out first-hand how climate change is affecting individuals.” Internews brought her to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018. Upon returning to Greenland, she vowed to improve domestic coverage of climate change issues at KNR Radio.
“It is still early days,” says Fahn, “This will take a lot of time and effort and, dare I say, investment, but I really think we may have planted a seed here that could blossom into more and better local coverage of climate-related issues in Greenland in the future.”
A growing public realisation that independent – and trusted – journalism is crucial
Those on the frontlines of circumstances, often outside of their control, are the ones who know the truth about what is really going on. “If you want to know what really happened in history, ask the underdog”, has been said over the years in many different ways. Or, in more concrete terms: don’t just check the records of the Romans who ruled, but try to find traces of records from those whose villages were pillaged. There is a need today to go right to the roots of the problem, to talk with the ‘underdog’ too, so that balanced, informed reporting can once again win back the trust of civil society.
The ways that information is created and consumed is undergoing a profound transformation in recent years, which, while creating some challenges for traditional media platforms, is also opening up many new opportunities for people near the action to raise their voices so that they are heard. As the need grows more urgent to inform communities in a trustworthy manner about how to build resilience in the face of challenges posed by a changing climate, new modes of information distribution have led to an explosive growth in the types of tools and technologies that help analyse, visualize and understand our world.
These technologies – digital media and social networks, for instance – are creating opportunities for local media to cover climate issues, with a depth and breadth unimaginable even a decade ago. Many media hubs are supporting journalists to adapt to and benefit from this changing landscape. And finally, too, more and more philanthropies, as well as not-for-profit organizations working on climate justice are getting behind media hubs that support strong local reporting around the world.
Rachel McKee is a communication officer at Oak Foundation in Geneva. This article was compiled with additional input from US-based Oak Foundation staff, the Climate Justice Resilience Fund and Internews. Rachel McKee worked for more than 10 years at RTE, Ireland’s national broadcasting station and she also has 10 years’ experience in communicating about human rights and social justice issues.
For further information
Some media outlets around the world that are strengthening people’s resilience to climate change are listed below. Plus if you would like to know more about what philanthropy is doing to support the coverage at grassroots levels, please contact the Climate Justice Resilience Fund: https://www.cjrfund.org/contact.
Internews believes that a strong, independent press and an informed, engaged citizenry forms the underpinnings of democracy. This organization works with citizens and local media in more than 100 countries, supporting the development of thousands of media outlets, including radio and television stations, newspapers, mobile news networks and online news sites. Find out more: https://www.internews.org/
thethirdpole.net is a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there. It is a registered not-for-profit organization based in New Delhi and London, with editors also based in Kathmandu, Beijing, Dhaka and Karachi. The Asian partner of Internews, it works work with an international network of experts, scientists, media professionals and policymakers to share knowledge and perspectives across the region. Find out more: https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/
India Climate Dialogue, a partner of thethirdpole.net, is a media hub that communicates about how climate change is affecting people in India specifically, and how the people are proactively trying to build resilience in the face of it. It aims to provide impartial and objective news and views on all aspects of climate change, how it affects India, and what can be done about it. Find out more: https://indiaclimatedialogue.net/
Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, based in Alaska, is building a climate change desk to produce more radio stories and web-based media focused on strategies used by Alaskan Natives to adapt and build resilience. Koahnic aims to increase understanding and awareness about the realities of climate change and the ingenious ways people find to adapt in the face of it. Koahnic’s own station (KNBA) covers an area home to more than half Alaska’s population. In addition, more than 350 US public radio stations air the news station’s programmes, including all 57 Native stations. Find out more: https://koahnicbroadcast.org/ and https://www.cjrfund.org/koahnic
The Earth Journalism Network (EJN) connects more than 6,000 journalists covering environmental issues around the world. Together they have developed a rich and diverse media hub that puts vulnerable and under-represented people at the centre of climate discourse. EJN’s approach is people-centred, focusing in particular on training women, youth and indigenous journalists, and on empowering and amplifying local, frontline voices. Find out more: https://earthjournalism.net/
Doc Society/Mothers of Invention (MOI) is an innovative podcast where Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and climate justice champion and Irish comedian Maeve Higgins discuss climate justice and interview female climate activists from around the world. Check out their podcasts here: https://www.mothersofinvention.online/.
Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST) works to prevent early marriage in Bangladesh, where adverse climate hazards have increased levels of poverty, which has led to more families marrying girls off at an early age. COAST has created girls radio clubs, which enable girls to report on issues around child marriage. In addition, the radio clubs are key networks for girls who may be facing pressures at home to marry early. http://coastbd.net/