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The Nile River and disputes over its usage is often represented as an issue between three countries: Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. But in fact the waterway is shared by 11 nations, making cooperation for its water a highly complex issue. Balanced reporting of developments along its banks is stifled by a lack of information and curbs to press freedom, says Emanuele Fantini, project manager for the Open Water Diplomacy Lab.
The Open Water Diplomacy Lab was set up in 2016 to promote science and media as a catalyst for cooperation and peace amid these tensions. It examines the role of these two sectors in influencing ongoing negotiations over Nile waters, working with researchers and journalists to build mutual understanding and improve collaboration.
“The project provides a space for journalists and water scientists from different Nile Basin countries to participate in the joint learning and production process of knowledge and discuss issues related to the Nile Basin,” says Fantini, a lecturer and researcher at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education who spoke to SciDev.Net about the challenges of researching this thorny issue.
What is the project and its objectives?
Our main question is: how can journalists and researchers work together to open up water diplomacy? Most of the time when it comes to water conflicts the media are considered part of the problem, being accused of negative, sensationalist or inaccurate reporting. So IHE Delft embarked on research with journalists from Africa Water and SciDev.Net and researchers from the Nile Basin Capacity Building Network and University of WITS, Johannesburg, to better understand how international and national media are talking about the Nile.
What was the focus of this research?
In our research on Nile media narratives we decided to focus on the Eastern Nile basin, specifically on Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, where media debates on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are particular lively and also contested. In order to complete the picture and explore how the same issues are reported outside these countries, we added the Ugandan [news website] and the international media (Al Jazeera and the Guardian).
We decided to look at mainstream newspapers and also analyse online comments by readers, since we are interested in both the mainstream or official narratives put forward by national government and institutions, and how these get reproduced or challenged online.
What were some of the main findings of your research on Nile Basin media coverage?
Often Nile issues are narrowed to a bilateral issue between Ethiopia and Egypt, with Sudan barely mentioned and often as a secondary actor, without clear agency and stakes. These bilateral accounts tend to emphasise the conflict dimension, while as soon as Sudan or other basin countries are brought in the picture, there is more room to explore and discuss collaborative solutions.
Data and scientific information are used mostly in a cosmetic or rhetoric way, to give an impression of information based on evidence, without adequate explanation and contextualisation. Most of the information on the GERD, for instance – about its costs and advancement of construction works – seems to be based on copy and paste from the internet. This is also due to the difficulty of accessing information about the dam and conducting investigative journalism in the region. We found very little reference and links to scientific studies and research on Nile issues.The big elephant in the room is freedom of expression: when analysing and commenting on Nile media debates we should not forget that these debates often take place in a closed political space, with significant limits to freedom of expression of both journalists and researchers. This of course goes beyond the Nile. During our research, for almost one year, Ethiopia was under state of emergency with social media shut down. The same happened in Sudan when the military shut down internet access and it was almost impossible to communicate with our Sudanese colleagues.
How do you plan to communicate the results to decision-makers and organisations working in the field of water?
What is the next step for the project?
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk and edited for brevity and clarity.
The Open Water Diplomacy Lab is run by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, the world’s largest international graduate water education facility. The project is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Global Partnership for Water and Development.