“We have done so many broadcasts on drought,” said Varsha. “We have even done a few on climate change. Now we know how to connect the two.” That was when I knew I had finally got through.
It was one of the toughest media training workshops I had conducted. Usually, I work with journalist colleagues who cover environmental issues, definitely including climate change. There we conduct media workshops on specific issues on which the journalists want more information or better understanding – what is happening to water flows in transboundary rivers as a result of climate change, how is it affecting agriculture, how can journalists incorporate valuation of natural resources into their reports and still be understood by the lay audience, and so on.
But here, in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, I was working with colleagues in community radio stations, journalists who no doubt were regularly reporting on environmental issues but without any theoretical underpinning, and who were broadcasting to an audience that consisted mostly of smallholder farmers in one of the poorest regions of India.
It had been daring of the NGO Development Alternatives to suggest this to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, and we at thethirdpole.net were very glad to be part of such a pioneering initiative. But as soon as the first workshop started, I could see it was going to be a special challenge.
We were to train journalists from four community radio stations – Radio Bundelkhand, Lalit Lokvani, Radio Dhadkan and Chanderi ki Awaz. For almost all of them, there were two immediate requirements – first, the basics of climate change had to be explained; second, this and everything else had to be done in Hindi, a language which does not have equivalent words for all the basic terms.
For example, what is carbon dioxide in Hindi? School textbooks in the language use the same term as in English, so students know it, and someone writing in a Hindi newspaper could easily use the term carbon dioxide, being confident that he or she would be understood. But what if many members of your audience had not been to school? That was the very valid question the journalists asked, and I was stumped.
But of course the journalists had been to school themselves, so they were the ones who held a discussion and figured out what they should do to explain some of the essential technical terms to the audiences. That decided how they would start their series of broadcasts after the training workshops – with a programme on what climate change is.
Linking climate science with local realities
We made the breakthrough when it came to effects of climate change. All the radio stations are in Bundelkhand – the semi-arid region in central India that has faced nine drought years out of the last 12. So when the journalists were told that in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had predicted one of the effects would be more frequent and more severe droughts, they made the connection immediately. That was when Varsha – an anchor in Radio Bundelkhand – came out with her exclamation. I still needed to explain what the IPCC was, give the website addresses where they would get more information, but the essential connection had been made.
This was reinforced during the field trip that formed a part of every workshop. We went to see a check dam – one of the most effective ways to adapt to climate change in a region where almost all the annual rainfall occurs during the four months of the South Asian monsoon and where monsoon aberrations had hit farming very badly.
Check dams hold the water and help it to percolate underground, so that farmers can use it much longer to irrigate their fields. As the journalists spoke to the farmers who were dependent on one such check dam, they gained a deeper understanding of how such adaptation techniques can be lifelines. The series of broadcasts include a programme on how best to conserve and use water in an era where climate change had already made water availability more uncertain than before.
There were many challenges ahead, as everyone figured out as the journalists made first drafts of their programmes. Community radio stations act as the link between the community, local policymakers and local experts. So the journalists first went around villages asking farmers what they thought was causing climate change. In almost every case, the answer they got was deforestation. While that is undoubtedly correct, not a single villager interviewed mentioned the principal cause – overuse of fossil fuels.
A clearer picture
Then the journalists went to the experts and the policymakers. There they did get some of the main causes of global warming – including fossil fuel overuse and deforestation – but they also got some wrong information. Some of the scientists listed air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide as greenhouse gases, some others mixed up global warming with ozone layer depletion. We had to hold a two-day review of all the early drafts, point out where the mistakes were occurring, and decide that the anchors would make the corrections in their commentaries.
In contrast, there were some excellent interviews when it came to the effects of climate change on farming, water supply, fodder and fuelwood availability and so on. Farmers, scientists, policymakers, all had to deal with these effects regularly, and so they knew exactly what they were talking about. And they were also quite clear on adaptation techniques.
One scientist from an agricultural research extension centre spoke about the way a newly-developed soybean variety that ripened in 80 days instead of 100 had enabled farmers to get their harvest in the autumn of 2012 before the crop was hit by water scarcity. Another talked of a vaccination programme that immunised goats against a disease to which they were becoming prone – all very useful information, much of it very specific for the audiences of these community radio stations.
Getting information out to the grassroots
We have a situation where climate change is no longer a threat for the future. It is having a serious effect here and now. Many of these effects – crop failures, increased water scarcity, domestic animals facing new diseases – are spread over villages. That makes them less visible to many media houses. The same can be said of the many climate change adaptation techniques devised by the communities or by the scientists – improved water conservation, short duration crops, drought and flood tolerant crop varieties, multicropping and agroforestry.
There is an urgent need to get this information out to everyone, firstly to bring home the gravity of the situation and secondly to inform people about the solutions that have worked. The first step in this process is to improve the knowledge and understanding of the many journalists who live and work at the grassroots level, and who report regularly on climate change effects without being able to make the connection with climate change. That is why we are very glad that we have taken up this challenge.
Image by Development Alternatives.
Find out more about the project and listen to the radio programmes here.