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Mapping Nile controversies. The role of media in water conflicts

Do water wars mainly happen on media reports? What is the role that media play in fuelling water conflicts, particularly when they report on controversial technical issues such as dams or climate change? In order to address these issues a workshop on ‘’Mapping Nile controversies’’ was held in Addis Ababa. The workshop was the kick-off of the project ‘Open Water Diplomacy Lab: Media, Science and Water Cooperation in the Nile basin’. The project aims to bring diplomats, journalists and water scientists from different Nile basin countries together, in order to engage in a process of common learning and co-production of knowledge, and to share and discuss the issues and controversies concerning the Nile Basin.

Working on shared Nile narratives

Stories about water issues in the Nile Basin have mostly been miscommunicated and exaggerated by journalists to date. The project therefore wants to explore how ideologies, knowledge and culture could possibly shape narratives on transboundary water issues.  The Open Water Diplomacy Lab explores how techno-scientific controversies on the Nile are debated in mainstream media and social networks in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and how these narratives impact on international negotiations. The main goal is to contribute to the emergence of shared Nile narratives going beyond mainstream “national interest” perspectives.

The Open Water Diplomacy Lab addresses the needs and demands of water journalists in terms of facilitated access to potential sources of information – getting scientific research on water communicated in an accessible and ready to use way, meeting and working with water researchers and water diplomats – and opportunities to support and promote media coverage on water issues.

Overcoming the national interest perspective

‘’First of all, the communication on how the issues on the Nile in both mainstream and social media in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt will be studied. Based on the research findings, joint training activities will be developed for journalists and scientists coming from the Nile countries. Hereafter, they will be brought together to work and cooperate in order to promote the shared narratives about the Nile, overcoming the mainstream national interest perspective,’’ explains Emanuele Fantini, Senior Researcher at IHE Delft and project coordinator.

The journalists who attended the workshop were very positive and optimistic about it and felt that they could engage better with water researchers through this initiative, which might lead to positive results and solutions.

Journalist views

Ishraga Abbas, a professional journalist form Sudan, who has been concerned and ambitious about water related issues, stated that she has never had the chance to work with water researchers, or to work on a water story based on the findings of water researchers. The journalist’s main argument on the continuous and controversial issue of the Nile basin, is that researchers are used to being out of the spotlight and prefer to share their findings with fellow researchers rather than communicating and sharing their findings with journalists.

Ishraga Abbas argues that this might be due to the fact that journalists often neglected the coverage of multifaceted water issues, or that journalists are perhaps known for misrepresenting the research facts or showing lack of interest in the topics related to water. “This is an essential responsibility for the journalists in the Nile basin, which they cannot simply avoid. Journalists have a crucial role to play in ending the Nile wars between countries that share the longest river in the world.  I therefore believe that the workshop is a great effort and initiative which will result in boosting the quality of water journalism in the Nile basin”, says Ishraga.

Dagim Terefe, an Ethiopian journalist and documentary maker, was very positive about the project.  “The Open Water Diplomacy Lab project will help give birth to a new generation of journalists that specifically concentrate on investigating River Nile issues’’. He added that the project has changed his view and perspective, and that from now on he will no longer write a Nile water story with a nationalistic thought or feeling.

Water scientists and researchers: ‘this workshop is important’

Water scientists and researchers were positive about the workshop as well, and agreed on its importance.

Dr. Wubalem Fekade, the head of the Social Development and Communication Unit at the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) based in Addis Ababa contends, ‘’having the story of the Nile in the media, will be a key catalyst for decision and policy makers in making enlightened and bold decisions that contribute to sustainable management of the river’’.

In addition, Atta el-Battahani, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Khartoum commented that it is of great importance to know and acknowledge that water is a strategic resource for livelihoods, in order to be able to manage it efficiently for the sake of people’s wellbeing.

Wondwosen Seide, a doctoral student at Lund University in Sweden, who has been researching the River Nile issues for the past ten years, believes that Nile wars are found generally in the media more than in reality. He also believes that the project is crucial in bridging controversies and contradicting reporting among the riparian countries.

Prof. Dr. Yacob Arsano of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia argued that the project can have a positive impact on bringing journalists and researchers together to identify the serious issues in the Nile discourse.

The Open Water diplomacy Lab is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs ‘Global Partnership for water and development’