State of Media Coverage Of The Nile: More Needs To Be Done

By Geoffrey Kamadi

That the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project has polarized opinion and continues to do so, has never been in doubt. Neither is the fact that this dam project has inspired hot, nationalistic passions on either side of the argument.

With a 5,150MW of power generation capacity and 15,000GWh/ year energy capacity, the GERD is the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, expected to double electricity generation in Ethiopia. 

Its construction began on the Blue Nile River in 2011 in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, approximately 15km from the border with Sudan. Its completion was set for mid-2020. It has a total volume of 74 billion m3.

The dam has engendered such intense polarization and nationalistic tendencies (that can be toxic at times), so much so that talk of an open conflict is never out of bounds.

However, one aspect of the whole discussion that continues to fly under the radar is the manner in which the story of the GERD and that of the River Nile Basin is told. 

Even though reporting remains central to informing and shaping people’s opinions regarding the merits and demerits of the project, little if anything, is said about how this is done. 

On the one hand, mainstream media and social media have been suspected of dwelling in either half-truths or utter fabrications – or both – to serve whichever agenda they might be suspected of advancing, when telling this story. At another level, it all depends on who you ask.

This came out clearly during a webinar hosted by InfoNile in mid-October that brought together journalists and communications as well as water experts who are knowledgeable about the Nile Basin water issues. 

Dubbed: Damming of the Nile: Science and Communication around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) the webinar was the first of a several-part series, which looked at how journalists can dispel misinformation when covering stories about the dam in particular and the Nile Basin in general. 

It also highlighted the quality of scientific research around the GERD, including the dam’s impact on the environment. This is in addition to exploring ways and means of mitigating conflict that may arise from misunderstandings between Nile Basin countries when it comes to sharing of the River Nile waters.

Mekdelawit Messay, an Addis Ababa-based water researcher, activist and communicator, pointed to the lack of nuance and context when reporting on the Nile Basin. This, as far as she was concerned, has consequently led to inaccurate portrayal of the true picture by the media.

“What is not right with the reporting of the Nile is that first, the framing [is wrong] and secondly is the representation,” she said.

Messay had conducted an informal survey over social media asking the public for its views on what “were the major blunders” – as she put it – when talking about the Nile Basin.

Going by the news coverage of the River Nile and its basin, one would be forgiven to think that the misunderstandings stemming from sharing the water resource only involve Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Yet, no less than 11 countries are found in this Basin.

“The major issue when reporting about the Nile or the Basin is thinking about it as a matter only for Egypt, or Egypt and Sudan, or Egypt and Ethiopia and forgetting the transboundary nature of the river,” explained Messay.

And to demonstrate how information might be misreported, thereby leading to misinformation, Messay was quick to reiterate the fact that the GERD was not the largest dam in Africa as it has wrongfully been referred to; rather, “it is the largest hydropower plant” on the continent.

“Small details like these, that might skew information, are quite important to pay attention to,” she stressed.

The science obscured by politics 

Sources of misinformation come about when the answer to the fundamental question: “Does the GERD only bring opportunity, or does it bring risks only?” is a categorical black-and-white answer: “yes” or “no”.  This is a problem, because both of these answers are correct, all at the same time.

“Any infrastructure or intervention could bring opportunities or risks,” observed Mohammed Basheer, a water researcher in the field of water resources management at the University of Manchester.

Basheer maintained that the most important question to pay attention to is the way risks and opportunities are distributed. In other words, it all comes down to who benefits more and who is exposed to risks most.

Once this has been established, then an agreeable compromise can be reached that will address how opportunities and risks are managed.

So, the way in which opportunities thus presented and the risks (that may have arisen) are tackled, will either quash the misinformation machine that the GERD inevitably unleashed, or may provide fertile ground to feed into them.

“How do we evaluate some of these risks and opportunities?” posed Basheer, whose research interests include modeling and management of trans-boundary rivers, water economics and remote sensing of the environment.

For the past eight years, Basheer has been collaborating with several learning institutions to develop a daily river system model of the Eastern Nile, which covers large parts of Sudan. This includes major tributaries, the White Nile, the Blue Nile and the Tekeze River as well as all of the river systems in Egypt. The University of Manchester, Oxford University, University of Khartoum and the University of Colorado Boulder are working together on this effort.

Avoiding the ‘water wars’ narrative

On the one hand, whereas the media bears some responsibility on how the Nile Basin story is told, it should however not be lost on anyone that journalists face their own challenges when reporting on the issue.

For example, the challenges faced by foreign journalists are different to what local reporters deal with. And this does not mean the obvious and usual logistical or financial disparities that exist between the two types of journalists– even though the influence of these factors certainly cannot be ignored.

One of the major challenges these journalists face is how to project a balanced perspective. That is to say, how do these journalists present the story of the GERD and that of the Nile Basin without appearing to exhibit preconceived bias or entrenched stereotypes – or both – in their stories?

“Among those who work from outside, the kind of the biggest mistake that many of us have made in recent years is to fall for the water wars narrative,” said Peter Schwarzstein, a British-American journalist and an environmental consultant based in Athens.

This kind of stereotypical narrative is informed by the idea that, as water scarcity becomes more pronounced, it almost certainly leads to conflict.

“And the Nile has sort of emerged as a kind of a ground zero for this idea,” observed Schwarzstein, who writes on regional, environmental and geo-political issues with a focus on water conflict, climate and food security. 

At another level, foreign journalists like Schwarzstein enjoy much leeway when it comes to access to certain sensitive information or the framing of their stories, something that cannot be said of many of the local journalists. 

This is because press freedom in many Nile Basin countries varies quite a bit. And in most instances, whatever little press freedom exists will hardly allow for much wriggle room for the journalist to report issues as they see them. The reporter therefore ends up toeing the official government line, more or less.

Reports in the media have oftentimes presented the GERD story as an existential threat to Egypt. But it should also be regarded from another angle, if the full picture is to be presented, according to Messay. 

In other words, the GERD is not only about the developmental and economic aspirations for Egypt. It should also be looked at through the human rights lens, where Ethiopian interests are concerned.

“This kind of intentional or unintentional framing of the Nile as an existential threat to one country while regarded as a luxury development initiative for another is quite unhelpful,” said Messay.

Citing recent flooding events in Sudan as well as drought situation in Egypt that were attributed to the GERD, argued Messay, is an instance of misrepresentation of facts by the media.

Neither of these phenomena was related to the GERD, according to the researchers, even though the media coverage of them alleged otherwise.

What is emerging in the reporting of the situation in the Nile Basin countries is that the lines between straight reporting of facts, stating of opinion and the presentation of analysis have been blurred.

This is due in large part to little press freedom in the region, logistical and financial challenges facing local journalists and the lack of environmental literacy among practicing journalists. So, what to do?

What can be done

“I think it is incredibly important that we read widely and tap into different resources in terms of making sure that we have a nuanced and well-rounded approach to report on issues on the GERD, whichever perspective that may be,” suggested Ola Owojori, a political & risk specialist based in London, who focuses on international security conflict and geopolitics with a regional focus on Africa.

This is something echoed by Schwarzstein, who advised that journalists and professionals within the science field should seize every available opportunity to communicate with, and meet people in other countries and in other fields.

“Anecdotally, it certainly seems as if some of the best and most balanced coverage has come from those who have taken advantage of summits, meetings and conferences where journalists meet peers from elsewhere within the Basin and outside,” he said. 

And according to Owojori, the cooperation between African countries cannot be overstated, if misunderstandings are to be eliminated and bias is to be minimized. 

But there is one fundamental aspect of reporting that should not only never be taken for granted, but should be observed at all times. This is the old, time-proven journalism commandment of fact-checking reports before going to press.

This is important in helping identify “biases and recognizing that scientists might have their own biases as well,” said Dr. Kevin Wheeler, a water engineer at the University of Oxford, who is also a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute.

All this is well and good. However, it needs to go a step further to help cultivate a sense of empathy between journalists and scientists. This can go a long way towards dismantling misinformation that can be found in some of the reporting regarding such a sensitive issue as the GERD.

Dr. Wheeler who has primarily focused on Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, cites an example where journalists were taken to the GERD site on a fact-finding mission by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) for several days.

Not only did journalists interact with scientists and the people on the ground involved with the project and the negotiations, but they gained first-hand experience and knowledge of the goings-on on the ground.

“This informed journalists over a long period of time,” said Wheeler, in addition to helping them appreciate some very deep discussions. 

This in turn, fostered a better understanding of the different sides of the argument and made sure that journalists understood both the Egyptian and Ethiopian points of view.

“I think that was a very good example of a very successful dialogue,” he said.

Dr. Wheeler has been analyzing the likely scenarios of falling water level in the High Aswan Dam in Egypt as a direct consequence of the GERD filling up. The Aswan Dam is critical for sustainable irrigation development and hydropower generation for Egypt.

Wheeler has since concluded that the recurrence of the situation created by the 1980 severe and disastrous drought in Ethiopia could still happen, even in the absence of the GERD. As a matter of fact, the GERD could actually help Egypt during the onset of such a drought, while creating a risky situation for Ethiopia.

But this is predicated on whether or not countries are willing to work together. Without an agreement, the GERD could delay a recovery from such a multi-year drought for Egypt. With an agreement, the dam can reduce the impacts of drought on Egypt, overall.

Therefore, “discussions over coordinating and recovering from the drought will require very careful planning throughout,” said Wheeler.

And as far as he is concerned, the probability of the Aswan Dam falling to critical levels due to the GERD is between 1 to 5 percent.

“So, it is very important for the media to be able to understand the difference between what is the most likely scenario versus the worst case scenario,” he said.

Working together remains critical, to making sure that conversations across neighbouring countries are encouraged and fostered, Owojori maintained, as opposed to relying on the international community to kind of facilitate those discussions. 

She further urged the African Union to take the lead role in fostering this kind of conversation around Africa-led solutions.