“On this occasion, therefore, we, the peoples of Ethiopia, call upon all the peoples of the Nile Basin to turn over to a new page of cooperation and solidarity. As we in Ethiopia build this Millennium Dam with the aim of eradicating poverty, let it be known to all that it will also stand as an expression of our commitment to the benefit of all the countries of the Nile Basin.”
These were the words of the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in April 2011 announcing the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), also known as the Millennium Dam.
After that speech, the eastern Nile Basin region was never the same. Contrasting perceptions and narratives about the dam were fed to the Sudanese, Ethiopian and Egyptian public during the last decade, and many aimed to widen the gap instead of seeking unity.
Governments and politicians played a significant role in creating the mess, but journalists and media outlets perpetuated it. Although the countries’ media is directed mainly by the state and often leans towards nationalism, some news coverage was inexcusable.
When we look at local news from Egypt, for example, we see that it portrays Ethiopia’s desire to utilise water resources as foreign intervention or a deliberate attack on Egypt’s national safety and water security. Some of the reports were alarmist or even promoted the spectre of violence. Words like “war” were repeatedly mentioned, while overall, they painted a dark image of the water security situation in their country.
This, at times, reckless reporting of false information created misunderstanding among the people. During a regional training in 2017, I spoke to local farmers. They had water issues that they related to the GERD even though it was still under construction by then, and the reservoir filling hadn’t commenced. I asked the farmer for the source of his information, and he said it was in the news. To those farmers, informed by local sources, the GERD was the cause of their suffering.
Ethiopian media narratives have also been adverse. National news had been charging people with feelings of rage towards their neighbours using every tool possible, such as convincing the public that some of Ethiopia’s droughts were caused by their inability to use what “God” has given them. Sometimes Ethiopian media outlets used provocative narratives, such as mentioning the Ethiopian-Eritrean war and linking it to the Egyptian intervention to rally people against Egypt.
Another worrying example is the coverage of the military cooperation between Sudan and Egypt as a proactive preparation for war over the GERD, raising fears and mistrust amongst the Ethiopian public and widening the gap between the historically close nations.
In Sudan, media narratives long supported Ethiopia in its attempts to utilise “their” water resources. They listed all the benefits of the GERD for Sudan, such as regulating the flow of water – therefore the floods – increasing the power supply – through electricity from Ethiopia.
Recently, however, this has changed to instilling fears and worries regarding Sudan’s water security portraying Ethiopia as acting selfishly regarding the “shared” water source. News reports focused on the expected decrease in sediment that will impact farmers along the river, for example.
Telling people suffering from a severe electricity crisis that they will be experiencing more power blackouts can spark very intense feelings. In fact, according to an official Sudanese source, power generation from Sudanese dams could increase if the GERD, once fully operational, would be operated cooperatively.
The narrative is being altered again and again.
Another example of the media zooming in on the potential negative impacts of the GERD is announcing that 50 percent of the seasonal farms on the banks of the river will be lost and covered with water – which might be true – but without clarifying that the remaining 50 percent can be cultivated regularly instead of seasonally. There would be fewer chances of flooding disasters like before.
I asked one of the high-ranking Sudanese officials regarding the second filing and why there were more worries and fears this time. “The negotiation was going better then, and we didn’t want to impact it negatively,” he said. “But lately, that tone has changed. It is ok to magnify the fears.”
The narrative is being altered again and again, with Egypt’s surprising statement that the second filing will not cause significant harm. Sudanese officials once again highlight the benefits of the dam in their public briefings. These alterations show how politicised this issue is.
The media narratives in the three countries built up and stirred resentments among the people towards their neighbours. The spread of mis- and disinformation also created the mistrust that is apparent when you talk to people in these countries about the GERD, maintained by some wild theories, all different and mostly wrong.
Another observation is that most of this coverage is rarely supported by scientific data or information from reliable sources. It lacks accurate figures and focuses on provoking emotions. Sometimes journalists would even interview some so-called “experts” who are well-known for their fanatic statements to get more reads. Balanced and fact-driven stories often “have no market”, some Sudanese editors say.
For accuracy, some of the issues reported in the media and the worries they raise are well-grounded and should be discussed. But the way concerns are covered in the news so far creates more problems, making it harder to find amicable solutions.
While concerns were raised regarding the impact of the GERD on the water security of Sudan and Egypt, a study highlighted a cooperative method to operate the dam by additionally utilising solar and wind power to generate electricity along with hydropower to mitigate the dam’s impact on the downstream countries. But apart from some science-focused publishers, the study wasn’t picked up by significant media outlets in the three countries.
If the idea is feasible or not is best determined by scientists. But to keep the public GERD discourses solution-oriented, the study would have provided an excellent hook for news editors across the basin. And this is just one example of many leads that could have been reported on instead of recycling negative news again and again.
All matters regarding the GERD are political now. Soon after the establishment of the dam was announced, it ceased to be a hydropower development project and became a national security issue. We have seen that media played a significant role in supporting this transition and even influencing the political negotiations regarding the dam.
Positive progress, such as the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 2015 and its outcomes, did not generate the same attention as the fears and worries. The media helped turn the GERD from a development structure that can be discussed technically, legally and from a perspective of unity and cooperation to a political mess approached with nationalism and adversity.
That media outlets need to increase their reach is understandable, but that can also be achieved by creating conversations around solutions rather than problems. Instead of recycling reports regarding the absence of an agreement, we can produce scientific supported reports that show cooperation scenarios and their benefits, for example.
Create conversations around solutions rather than problems.
Using credible information, reliable sources and fact-based data also requires journalists’ consideration of all the technical and legal aspects of the issue. Some regional and international institutions realised this need and held events bringing journalists from different countries together and even linking them with experts. This reflected positively on the media coverage and the journalists’ understanding of the different narratives and the importance of science in covering water-related news.
Still, more change is needed. We need more balanced, well-sourced, responsible, and objective reporting aiming towards cooperation and togetherness in the region, coverage that creates constructive conversations rather than exacerbating conflicts and reflects the problematic aspects in a solution-oriented way, not as inflammatory statements.
We need to rethink how we report transboundary issues of mutual interest and regional importance, such as the GERD. Focusing on cooperative approaches that seek mutual benefit, unity, and togetherness creates a win-win situation. It is high time we stop fuelling geopolitical tension and boosting public fear.