Reporter speaks of water issues around the globe

Samantha Worgull

In India, there are more people with cell phones than toilets.

Chances are, most people don’t believe that, but it’s true. With such a huge population growing by the minute, areas in India and Bangladesh are having a problem maintaining sanitation systems once they are built, said Peter Sawyer, special projects coordinator at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization committed to global issues.

“At first I didn’t know much about the subject, (water crisis), but when I joined the Pulitzer Center, it was something that had already been a focus for the center for about two years,” Sawyer said.

After joining the center in the fall of 2009, Sawyer took on an educator role of the water crises, specifically sanitation, and began to help spread the word throughout high schools and colleges.

On Monday night, Sawyer and his colleague, Stephen Sapienza, a reporter for the center, exposed a packed audience in the First Energy Auditorium to this global issue at Kent State’s film screening and discussion “Down Stream.”

Another global issue Sapienza spoke about was climate change, an issue that the world is well aware of but may not know how it affects countries around the globe.

For the past three years, Sapienza has been working on a documentary called “Easy Like Water” that takes a look at how the people of Bangladesh are dealing with climate change.

“Lots of people who were living in the coastal areas were moving to the big cities because their homes were affected by climate change,” Sapienza said. “I then went into the slums to see the way these people were living.”

Already gaining a vast amount of knowledge during his three years there, Sapienza welcomed the opportunity to do some reporting on the water sanitation crises he was witnessing first-hand for Jon Sawyer, the executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

At any given time while traveling the world, reporters find a lot of stories that get little to no attention.

“As it is with all reporting, the more you learn about the subject the more you understand how it intersects with your life,” Sawyer said.

In places like Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country with a population of 15 million and growing by 1,000 people a day, the availability of a place to relieve oneself is close to impossible.

Many people in this megacity are practicing open defecation, a leading factor in the global water sanitation crisis. Thousands of children are dying each day because of water-related illnesses, diarrhea and dehydration the most common, Sawyer said. This is a result of people relieving themselves in rivers and alleys that may be used as a source of “clean” water.

By 2020, the city of Dhaka’s population is expected to reach 20 million, making it the third biggest city in the world, Sapienza said.

And Pagia Sewage Plant is the one and only sewage treatment plant for some 12 million people inhabiting the city now.

Where will all the human waste go when the population reaches 20 million?

Communities in Bangladesh have introduced a solution to the problem called community-lead total sanitation. Its purpose: to get a community to be open-defecation free, Sapienza said.

“In community-lead total sanitation, leaders mobilize a community to realize that open defecation is a problem, and they pledge to eliminate it in their communities,” Sapienza said.

“Although this works in rural areas, it is hard to apply it to the more urban areas, or slums.”

A seemingly enormous problem, water sanitation can be fixed effectively and sustainably if we think of all the other ways we use water, too, Sawyer said.

“It is not always an issue of wealth or poverty,” he said. “It can also be an issue of knowledge.”

Awareness of the issue is often the problem and something that needs improvement.

Out of all funding going to the sanitation sector, 80 percent of the funding is coming from county governments, and only 20 percent is coming from foreign governments and non-governmental organizations, Sawyer said.

There is still a lot of room for improvement.

“Within our community of practitioners, there seems to be an enormous lobby of people who are interested in this issue,” Sapienza said. “They are helping leaders, policymakers and the public get over the fear of discussing sanitation issues, and I think they can convince them to provide funding.”

Two billion people are without sanitation, a problem that can easily be fixed once people accept the issue, Sapienza said.

“We have a finite supply of water on Earth,” Sawyer said. “But it doesn’t go anywhere. It stays with us.”

Contact Samantha Worgull at [email protected].