How we reported the dual dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic and a water crisis in the Nile Basin

Water is a basic need to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases. But even before the pandemic, communities across Africa’s Nile River Basin were already struggling with lack of clean water and sanitation.

At InfoNile, with the Pulitzer Center grant, we wanted to explore more. In the midst of competing crises, how were communities in the Nile Basin keeping themselves safe during the pandemic?

For over one year, we worked with 32 journalists from nine Nile Basin countries to report on water challenges and solutions in a time of crisis, conducting data-based reporting in partnership with Code for Africa. Most of the journalists worked in pairs: collaborations between a TV, newspaper or online journalist reporting in an international language, such as English, Arabic or Swahili, and a local radio journalist, often reporting in a local language. 

All of the journalists were enrolled into our inaugural data journalism training and mentorship program, where they were matched with expert data mentors from Code for Africa and went through practical training sessions over 6 months. Working with their mentors, the journalists were able to locate data and produce visualizations for their stories. 

We published stories on TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and online platforms across the 9 countries. 

About half of the journalists investigated the reasons behind low levels of clean water and sanitation, and how the onset of the pandemic affected access to water. These included topographic challenges in mountainous areas of western Uganda, access challenges in Uttash refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan, and the drop in water supply in Goma, DRCongo when water imports from Rwanda were restricted due to Covid-19. 

Hervé Mukulu, of Radio Upendo Kivu, tells how he investigated the mismanagement of funds collected by NGO-built water projects in eastern DRCongo. 

About half of the journalists reported features focusing on working solutions. These included a loan program to construct rainwater harvesting tanks in Kenya, government WASH programs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, grassroots programs to install hand-washing stations in Kibera informal settlement, Nairobi, and drinking water stations in schools in Rwanda. 

When floods driven by climate change displaced more than 200,000 people around Lake Victoria during the lockdowns, we reported stories on how lakeside communities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, especially those displaced into camps, were accessing water and sanitation.

We found that climate change is worsening the existing water scarcity in the river basin.

For example, communities that already struggle with access to water are even more at risk when faced with droughts and floods that harm water and sanitation infrastructure. 

When we asked, journalists told us that their solutions stories had helped inspire other organizations to take up similar projects, such as the water purification projects in Egypt. Stories on displaced communities by floods in Kenya contributed to a new clean water program by the Busia county government. A story on WASH challenges in Kabarole, western Uganda, inspired the district health department and local NGOs to start latrine programs in the community, and the government started extending piped water to the area.

Some of the individual stories also received national and international journalism awards, including Henry Owino’s feature for ScienceAfrica and Hervé Mukulu’s investigation for Radio Upendo Kivu. 

To complete the project, we produced an interactive map where you can view data on water accessibility, rainfall and runoff in the Nile Basin and compare regions. See how to read the map here.

Impacts of our reporting

There was a recent law adapted for planning water purification and the NGO’s  partnership was part of it. The story helped lightening this part of the law. People were afraid to talk about their water purifications efforts but now they became more courageous to describe their efforts . Some other projects were launched and finalized like the project we visited in one of the quarantine hospitals in Zawyet El-Naour. Now it is reality.

A Finnish water NGO cooperating in the middle east and north Africa showed great attention to my story and contacted me to explain how they build a ready made purification unit ready to use with lesser costs and can be adapted in rural areas or annexed to homes in cities. 

Rawnaa Almasry, Egypt, Scidev.net and Egyptian TV

My story highlighted the impact and crisis of waterborne disease amisdt Covid19 in Budalangi Busia county. After my reporting the Busia county government under the Ministry of Water and Sanitation and the Ministry of Health started clean water programs in the region. The story really changed the society and brought clean water to residents.

Calvin Wanga, Kenya, Western Nyota Radio

The district health inspector contacted me after the story and started the programme named home cleanliness competitions in the sub counties of Karago and Harugongo where they looked at the cleanliness of households with emphasis put at the type of latrine each household has, whether it had a washing point at the toilet and boiled drinking water.

  NGOs including HEWASA and UWASNET also visited Karangura sub county to help the communities on how how to build improved toilets. 

Jonan Tusingwire, Uganda, KRC FM

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