Q&A: the ‘elephant in the room’ in Nile Basin reporting

The gerd Nile dam
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Copyright: Hellen Natu/Nile Basin Discourse

Speed read

  • Reporting of Nile water issues is stymied by lack of data, press freedoms
  • Media reporting of scientific research on the Nile Basin is scarce
  • Water diplomacy project aims to open up dialogue around Nile water issues

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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?

Open Water Diplomacy is a project to create communication between media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile Basin. Usually when we think about diplomacy, including water diplomacy, the first ideas that come to mind are images of secrecy and closure. Diplomacy takes place in closed contexts, not open to public scrutiny, like meetings between diplomats.

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.

Our second goal is to train journalists and researchers on science communication skills, with online and residential training, so that they can join these conversations effectively. And our third goal is to support the co-production by journalists and researchers of original information on Nile issues.

What was the focus of this research?

In our work with journalists and researchers we started by focusing on what tears them apart, on differences between the two professions that might lead to lack of collaboration, trying to understand how to bridge them. But as the project proceeded, it also become clear what journalists and researchers have in common. And the question here is: does this imply that we can no longer trust journalism and science? I don’t think so.

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.

We are currently completing our research and are planning to publish it in a book later this year. It will be the first time researchers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will co-author research on this theme.

What were some of the main findings of your research on Nile Basin media coverage?

We found that the media remains caught in the nation trap: Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are presented as unitarian, monolithic actors with one national interest orienting their action in relation to the Nile. There is almost no reference to internal debates within each country about how Nile waters should be distributed and used.

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?

As a project we have different channels of communication to reach different audiences: we have InfoNile.org which is a platform for geographic journalism, interested in mapping the world. We also have the podcast The sources of the Nile whose main goal is to elicit a conversation between journalists, researchers and policymakers. And there’s the online campaign #EverydayNile involving photojournalists from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt who visited each other to picture how the Nile looks in other riparian countries.

What is the next step for the project?

In the past months our project has also generated interest outside the Nile Basin, so we are planning to scale it up and share our experience with journalists and researchers from other basins like Lake Chad in Africa and the Brahmaputra in Asia. We will try to replicate there what we did in the Nile Basin in terms of research, training and reporting grants – and hopefully we will also learn more from the experience of these other basins.
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.