In a world filled with uncertainties and conflicts, media coverage has always been under fire amid discussion about whether it fuels or alleviates disagreement. This also holds for the coverage of Nile Basin affairs in its 11 riparian countries.
The words of the renowned Austrian-American journalist Henry Anatole Grunwald highlight the urgent role of honest reporting. “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
According to Dr. Allan Bomuhangi, a Climate Change and Natural Resources management expert, the media play an essential role in shaping governance – if it is well balanced. “Suffice to mention is that it’s a powerful agent of democratic accountability. The government are held accountable to its citizens,” he says.
Through the media, Dr. Bomuhangi says, voices of the marginalised are heard and consequently inform the government’s policy agenda. It is also critical in ensuring stability and conflict reduction in conflicted areas. He added that areas like the Nile Basin benefit from “the promotion of improved debate, dialogue and tolerance in fragile or conflict-affected societies”.
Kagire Edmund, a Rwandan journalist, underscores the need for neutrality in reporting issues about the Nile. “As a neutral party, the media has the power to discern between a lot of misinformation on Nile issues,” he says, referring in particular to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in the Benishangul-Gumuz region – about 30 kilometres upstream (east) of the Sudanese border.
“Journalists have to avoid propaganda and taking sides regarding the Ethiopian or Egyptian narrative,” Kagire says. “The media can play a vital role in helping the masses understand the background and the whole issue.”
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Juma Kirya, a reporter with Uganda’s Nation Media, says reporters can help educate citizens of the Nile Basin, letting them know that the Nile can be used without damaging it: “We can educate the masses to use the Nile while conserving it so that others can equally benefit from it.”
With its tributary basin spanning Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the White Nile flows downwards through Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan, where it joins the Blue Nile, with its source in Ethiopia, before making its way to Egypt.
The Nile works as an energy source for most countries in the basin. And its water is vital for domestic purposes, factories and irrigation. The basin’s water resources are home to many fish species, providing food for millions of people. The river also forms the habitat for various other animals – crocodiles, hippos, and other reptiles. Its shores are home to hundreds of bird species.
“The Nile shouldn’t be owned by anyone. It’s for us all. It’s about humanity,” says Adams Mayambala, who works for See TV in Uganda. He argued that conflicts should be resolved by amicable discussion when they arise.
Concerning Nile controversies, Egyptian Journalist Amira Sayed, a senior reporter at The Egyptian Gazette newspaper, says that the politicisation of water issues has put extra pressure on journalists. She said it is a hard beat due to a lack of neutral information.
Dr. Agaba Abbas, the Secretary-General of the African and Arab Youth Council, says journalists in the Nile Basin have to avoid “irresponsible” reporting. “Media should care about people’s reaction but not blow things out of proportion,” he says. “We need equitable utilisation of the River Nile resources that each of the peoples of the Nile Basin can benefit from it, for it has been given to us. We just live around it.”
For his part, Edmund Kagire cites the Kinyarwanda saying: “Issues of a household are resolved within the household.” He says he believes the issues of the Nile Basin can always be resolved among member states so that all members can equitably benefit from the Nile.
Provision of resources is also crucial in nipping future conflicts in the bud, according to Marwa Tawfik, a prominent journalist at the Egyptian state-run newspaper Al-Ahram: “If we provide resources for everyone, there will be no conflicts.”
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is an intergovernmental partnership of ten Nile Basin countries, namely Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea participates as an observer. The all-inclusive basin-wide institution was established on February 22, 1999, to provide a forum for consultation and coordination among the riparian countries for the sustainable management and development of the shared Nile Basin water and related resources for win-win benefits.
In 2010, five NBI members adopted the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) treaty. The document outlines principles, rights and obligations for the cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin water resources. Rather than quantifying ‘equitable rights’ or water use allocations, the CFA intends to establish a framework to “promote integrated management, sustainable development, and harmonious the utilisation of the water resources of the Basin, as well as their conservation and protection for the benefit of present and future generations”.
Egypt and Sudan declined to sign the agreement. As a consequence of this disagreement, Egypt suspended its full participation in the NBI. As Nile controversies gathered pace, so did training programmes for journalists in the Nile Basin. Through its programmes and courses, the NBI has taken centre stage in this regard, supporting constructive and professional narratives on transboundary water issues.
Marwa Tawfik, who specialises in African affairs and water and environmental issues, believes that the workshop she attended with NBI in 2014 was a milestone in her career journey. “It was a real moment of opportunity,” she said, describing the workshop with Mohamed Wadie, a senior journalist at the Sada El-Balad website, Nile TV Presenter Mona Sweilem and others.
Tawfik recalled that the workshop was followed by several other courses in Jordan, tackling water and its management, especially in the North African region, which is grappling with freshwater scarcity. Attendance was from across the Nile Basin countries, encouraging a diversity of perspectives.
“This helped me get acquainted with different viewpoints and share knowledge in fields related to water and the environment. Spontaneous face-to-face meetings helped lay the foundation for constructive dialogue,” Tawfik remarked, adding that it offered new networking opportunities.
Journalists, according to Tawfik, are in charge of highlighting the problems facing their countries, such as pressing topics like water and food security and climate change.
The NBI workshops have also helped create strong relationships at work and beyond, despite the different ideologies of participants. It allowed the trainees to share knowledge and co-report stories.
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Tawfik recalls a situation with a colleague called Florence Abolot from Uganda, who she knew through the NBI and who came to Cairo to report about water quality. “Myself and my colleague, Mohamed Wadie were pleased to help her gather information and meet the sources, whether within the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs or in the Ministry of Irrigation,” she recounts.
“I am also sure that if any Egyptian journalist travelled to any Nile Basin country, our colleagues we met in the courses would do the same,” she says.
The NBI also provides field visits for its trainees, which is essential for comprehensive coverage of issues. “For example, if you want to write about the sources of the Nile in Uganda, you have to visit it first,” Tawfik said.
Helping reporters visit different NBI member countries opens up new perspectives to understand the Nile controversies. In turn, this helps provide nuance to the many stereotypical portrayals of the region.
Sayed is glad that she has attended some media training and workshops that have helped her better deal with controversies surrounding the Nile, including one organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in Ethiopia in 2019.
She called the workshop timely as it helped her write better stories about controversial issues surrounding the GERD. “For Egypt, this dam poses a serious threat to its water security. For Ethiopia, the dam is a vital source of electricity which is in dire need,” she said.
By interacting with Ethiopian colleagues, she understood “the other side of the story. We met many international experts who dealt with the Nile file from scientific perspectives throughout the workshop. They presented their recent papers and research, helping us know more about the technical points related to the dam,” Tawfik adds.
She says it is journalists’ responsibility to give readers accurate and unbiased information. “The programme provided me with new tools for reporting despite a lack of information. I started to deal with this file from a new lens,” she says.
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Many reporters benefit from uniting experts from all NBI member countries to discuss intrinsic issues surrounding the Nile. But, says Tawfik, there must be political will from all NBI partners for a peaceful solution to equitable use of the Nile.
“The media cannot do anything if there is no genuine political will to solve problems and reach a compromise and solutions that do not harm the people,” she concludes.