At the start of a recent journalism training with participants from various Nile Basin countries, the facilitator asked participants to name the source of the River Nile. The answers were almost as diverse as the nationalities of the participants. Many argued pretty passionately that the Nile started somewhere in their home country.
Claims on the origin of the Nile and broadly the river’s water resources have been symbols of nationalism for many years. It is far from the cooperative framework that many experts argue would enable sustainable management and utilisation of the river’s resources.
Fortunately, scientists have moved away from narrow definitions or references to the Nile as purely national assets. As Stephen Ogwete, a Director in Uganda’s Ministry of Water, observed, the experts now take a holistic approach to the river as an indivisible and complex ecosystem that comprises numerous lakes, rivers and wetlands all working together.
Nationalistic sentiments, which are taught either in schools or promoted through government policies and pronouncements or promoted in the media, are among the obstacles to achieving cooperation in the utilisation of the water resources of the Nile.
Emmanuel Fantini, a researcher at the Netherlands-based IHE Delft Water Institute, speaking during the 6th Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF), argued that nationalistic sentiments have triggered divisions and conflict among Nile Basin countries.
For Fantini, escaping the national trap requires a holistic view of the river that considers its diverse geographical, climatic and cultural aspects to generate consensus and understanding.
As media and as individuals, embracing and promoting the shared perspective of the Nile, as opposed to viewing the river purely through national lenses, is essential in building consensus and forging more sustainable projects.
Nationalistic sentiments have triggered divisions.
Journalists and individual citizens of the Nile Basin, especially those in positions of influence, need to catch up with the fact that the Nile is more of a regional than a national asset.
For example, under the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which seeks to establish a permanent body to oversee the shared water resources, there is a deliberate effort to replace such absolute rights and notions as ‘equitable rights’ or water use allocations, with the more inclusive terms such as “promoting integrated management, sustainable development, and harmonious utilisation of the water resources of the Nile Basin”.
Since the Nile is a shared resource and a fragile one, its utilisation requires joint efforts towards sustainability. Researchers and governments technocrats have moved the debate from sharing the resource to sharing the benefits in recent years.
As Michael Kizza, the Deputy Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), points out, the basin is characterised by considerable variabilities in rainfall, climate and geography, causing flooding and erosion.
“Most of the water in the Nile comes from upstream countries, while downstream countries receive very little rainfall. Even the upstream countries that receive a lot of rain experience shortages of water during the dry season. Many of the challenges that face the member countries of the Nile, such as flooding, high population growth, and economic growth, are transboundary in nature. So for each country to operate on its own to solve its problems will not result in the best solutions.”
Approaches like sharing the resource in absolute terms have created competition over the river and undermined its ability to keep up with the ever-growing pressure of meeting the demands of the bulging population.
Challenges that face the member countries of the Nile are transboundary in nature.
For countries to sustainably manage the resource, Kizza argues, governments have shifted focus on supporting projects that seek to extend the benefits of the river beyond national boundaries.
Projects such as the power interconnection lines between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or the joint fisheries protection patrols conducted between Uganda and DRC on Lake Albert and George, are better alternatives. They save resources that would have been invested if each country had established its own projects and because sharing benefits promotes peace.
Sowedi Ssewagudde, the Commissioner for Transboundary Affairs in Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, says: “We note that different countries have different comparative advantages. For example, you may find that a country upstream may have more fertile land, that even if you applied a small amount of water, it might be more productive than irrigation in the desert. Of course, we understand the different sentiments among our partners in terms of being self-reliant. But we are also promoting the idea that a given country can, for example, invest in the production of food in another country, export it, and only pay taxes in the country where you’re growing.”
Therefore, in rethinking investments, media practitioners may need to understand these concepts, appreciate the benefits, and promote debate among the population on the best way to share benefits and costs of cooperation.
Studies on how media outlets report events about the Nile Basin suggest that the media have not done an excellent job of balancing the voices of stakeholders.
While presenting a recent study on how media captured the voices in reporting the Nile issues during the 6th NBDF, Fantini noted that overwhelmingly, the press had given government officials and technocrats more space than other stakeholders. “Voices count. But very often, the voices of the ordinary people are either silenced, or they are categorised as having grievances, not solutions.”
Fredrick Mugira, the co-founder of the investigative multimedia online platform InfoNile, goes a step further when he says that reliance on the official government statements is often the source of nationalistic sentiments and speculation, as opposed to professional balanced and objective reports.
Meanwhile, many journalists in most media outlets across the Nile Basin overwhelmingly depend on official statements for news, which many say propagates nationalistic sentiments and state propaganda while obscuring the knowledge and experiences of the experts and people on the ground.
For Fantini, the media need to start interviewing people based on their background. “Instead of inviting people based on their passport, why not interview people based on their background? Every time we talk about the Nile, we should have an anthropologist, a hydrologist or a social scientist to reflect the complexity of the river basin and its ecosystem.”
It is from scientists that you can get objective findings.
InfoNile’s Fredrick Mugira says that close ties between journalists and scientists enrich stories and conversations. “It is from scientists that you can get objective findings of events. Journalists need to cultivate tighter relationships with scientists who are generators of this knowledge.”