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Water Champions initiate or implement water reforms in their chosen field, and are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries.
Irfan Shahzad: Using the Pen to Right Water Concerns
By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Mr. Irfan Shahzad works as Research Coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in Pakistan, focusing on research in globalization and economic development for the past four years. He is also involved with IPS in various capacities, including as Assistant Editor of the IPS Journal “Policy Perspectives.” Mr. Shahzad regularly contributes to national and international media, both in English and Urdu, on a wide range of economic, social and development issues. He is the winner of the “All Pakistan Essay Writing Competition on Software Piracy 2003” and second runner up in the Women and Development Category of “Developing Asia Journalism Awards 2005." During the last four years, he has extensively covered water-borne diseases, the controversy over water distribution, bottled water, small dams, and the Kalabagh Dam debate in the country, interviewed key personalities, and co-authored research on the overall water situation in Pakistan for “Pakistan Army Journal”. Mr. Shahzad participated in the Journalist Workshop on Water Issues in Pakistan, organized by the Asian Development Bank in April 2005, and was invited to participate in the upcoming ADB Regional Journalist Workshop on Water policy Issues in Asia, 5-8 February 2006 in Bangkok.
What prompted you to write about water issues? Back in 2001, when I was writing for a weekly called “Orbit,” there was an outbreak of waterborne diseases in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, particularly among children. The sad state of those affected aroused in me a need to spread awareness on waterborne diseases and their impacts. I have been writing on water issues since then, covering such topics as the controversy over water distribution, bottled water, small dams, the Kalabagh Dam debate and more. Do you think the media is adequately covering Pakistan’s water woes? There is definitely no dearth of water concerns in Pakistan. Some— such as access to safe drinking water or waterborne ailments—have found a place in the media and are covered on a periodic basis. Another critical issue highlighted well in Pakistan media is the need to build more reservoirs. In my country now, almost everyone shares the opinion that we need to build more dams; the main difference in opinions is on where to build and what kind. But our media remains silent on a lot of other issues. What the media can and should do is make the people aware that water challenges are everyone’s; that solution to water problems start from every single household. Sadly, that dimension remains missing in our media coverage. What are some of the challenges to covering water issues in the media? I think the commercial interests of media itself are the biggest hurdles. “Ad hungry” media outlets usually assign tasks to the reporters that best fill their bank accounts. Issues of mass public interest come at the bottom of the priority list, if at all. What can be done to improve the media’s coverage of water issues in Pakistan? Proper orientation on, and deeper understanding of, the water issues are what Pakistani journalists need now. Understanding that each neighborhood faces specific water concerns helps. That understanding has to come from each journalist. But they will
need the help and active involvement of media-outlets and organizations involved in training local and foreign journalists. How has media coverage influenced readers and decision makers? Assessing the impact of media coverage is not a simple or easy thing to do. Still, there are shifts in behavior or opinions that we can somehow attribute to what is presented by the media. Speaking on a personal level, I think I was able to draw the attention of local authorities on the waterborne diseases attacking the residents of Rawalpindi by first writing about it, and then encouraging other journalists to write about the same topic. What impact did the journalism workshops have on your reporting of water issues? I learned a lot and my understanding increased. The workshop helped me gain a broader perspective on the water issues facing Pakistan. I understand the problems more now, and recognize the bright prospects that still lie ahead. In a nutshell, I can say that the workshop encouraged me to be part of solution, instead of whining and crying about the problem. What messages, issues or lessons from your experience in covering water issues can you share with our readers? First, I think it is time for journalists and media organizations to rise above job requirements and commercial interests and just present water issues, whether of national and global importance, as they really are, not as we want to portray them. Secondly, we must give due importance to the different water issues and not just focus on the current, boiling issue. One important issue now in Pakistan is the debate on dam projects. While this issue is important, an unfortunate result is that all the other issues take the back seat. Every single issue related to water has its own importance, and must be treated as such. Finally, I think journalists like me should involve the marginalized sectors in the debate on water issues. With our incredible reach through print, electronic and broadcast media, we are in a position to provide people with accurate and appropriate information. Once the masses are involved, I think tables can be turned.
_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in January 2006: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/Shahzad.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.