Media, science and water diplomacy: a Nile hydropolis?

Which role do media and science communication play in controversies over transboundary waters? This is one of the research questions addressed by the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented by IHE Delft, University of Wits (Johannesburg), Nile Basin Capacity Building Network (NBCBN), Africa Water Journalists and

The question will be debated at the workshop on “Communicating Water Science for Transboundary Cooperation in the Nile Basin” hosted by NBCBN in Cairo on the 22nd and 23rd of May. Here you can read the full program. Researchers, journalists and policy makers from different Nile basin countries will gather together to discuss a pilot case study mapping online debates on the Nile in Ethiopia, to watch three videos on water science communication in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, to learn from previous experiences of media training in the Nile basin, and to plan future joint training activities for journalists and researchers.

The Hydropolis

Two timely contributions helped in the final preparation of the workshop. The first one is the Sim Card by Ethio Telecom that my colleague Hermen Smit just brought back as a “communication gift” from Addis Ababa. A good reminder of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)’s omnipresence in Ethiopian public spaces and political imaginaries.

The omnipresence of the GERD in the Ethiopian hydropolis

The second contribution is the article Hydropolis: reinterpreting the polis in water politics just published by Filippo Menga in the journal “Political geography”. I recommend the reading to all the workshop’s participants, as well as to those interested in communication and water politics.

But what does hydropolis mean? Filippo builds on Hanna Arendt’s definition of the polis: “it is not the city-state in its physical location: it is the organization of the people as it is arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt 1958, p.198 quoted in Menga 2017, p. 102). In applying this notion to the domain of water politics and referring to the hydropolis, Filippo points at “the necessity to study politics and the political in the field of hydropolitics and critical geopolitics (p. 103). Thus the hydropolis indicates a physical space related to water, in this case the GERD is transformed into a “political space of appearance”, to use Arendt’s words. The idea of appearance opens very interesting and fruitful avenues for research and discussion, particularly when it comes to media, communication and their visual dimension. I will reflect on these issues in another post. Here I would like to focus on two main points.

In his article Filippo takes the GERD as case study to illustrate how the Ethiopian hydropolis “emerges as a manipulated political space [by the ruling elite] where a particular issue is removed from the public debate to pre-empt the opportunity for internal dissent to arise” (p. 103). This space is framed by the Ethiopian ruling elite as a foreign policy issue, grounded on the friend/enemy distinction in relation to Egypt. Two dichotomies are here evoked: the first one is friend/enemy or against/towards; the second one is elites/citizens, or from above/from below.


Going against or going towards?

The friend/enemy distinction made me thinking about dichotomies and binary categories in the study of transboundary water relations. As we have learned from Zeitoun and Mirumachi (2008) as well from Cascao (2008), the rigid dichotomy that sees conflict and cooperation as two opposite of a continuum might not be that accurate to describe and analyse transboundary water interactions, as they call them. Rather, in these interactions, conflict and cooperation seem to coexist in “an ongoing and non-linear process in which state and non-state actors establish, challenge, modify and legitimize multi-layered governance structures”.

But at the same time we should ask ourselves what does this coexistence practically mean and how does it unfold? This has both theoretical and methodological implications for our research on the role of the media and scientific communication in transboundary waters interactions.

How should we acknowledge the fluidity and the complexity related to the coexistence of conflict and cooperation when studying online and offline media debates on Nile issues? In our research we try to code different statements (official press releases, newspapers’ articles, Facebook or blog’s posts…) as well as the comment to those statements. One of the key issue is to indicate if a statement or a comment is “going towards” (i.e. acknowledging the existence of a plurality of interests about the use of Nile waters; suggesting the need for mediation between different positions and claims; promoting visions, projects and approaches to manage Nile waters in an integrated way at basin level, emphasising cooperation, pointing at common problems and identifying joint solutions to be implemented by riparian countries, ….) or if it is “going against” (i.e. not acknowledging the existence of competing interests over the Nile; not acknowledging the existence of the right of other riparian states to use Nile waters; considering others’ claims, uses and projects as a threat to his/her own country/group water security; calling for unilateral solutions, violence…).

In our pilot study we already realized the difficulty of categorizing some statements and reports according to such binary distinction. Some of them might contain both elements promoting/calling for cooperation or conflict. How can we isolate and highlight such elements within the same statement?

Other statement might aspire to offer balanced and neutral information. Shall we add a third category to reflect this stand or is a neutral and balanced account about the Nile a statement that automatically “goes towards”. Or perhaps neutrality as such does not exist?

And which role do science – but we can ask the same question about culture or religion – play in such a debate? Is it mostly used as a vector for going against or going towards? Are there specific disciplines or knowledge that are mostly mobilized for going against or going towards?

These are the issues that we will discuss during the first day of the workshop in Cairo. Having journalists, researchers and policy makers from different Nile countries sitting in the same room, I am confident that we will get meaningful reflections and answers. Stay tuned!


Can we think – and practice – the hydropolis from below?

The second reflection inspired by Filippo’s article relates to his illustration of the Ethiopian hydropolis as a “space manipulated by ruling elites”, to frame the GERD as a foreign policy matter, to “deproblematise its environmental and societal consequences”, “to help legitimating the ruling elite and “bolster popular support”, “to distract public attention from other pressing matters“ and “pre-empting the arousal of dissent” (Menga p. 100). This dimension is undoubtedly present and prevailing in the discourse about the Nile and the GERD in contemporary Ethiopia. But given the fluidity of such discursive practice recalled above, is it not too reducing to simply understand the hydropolis as a space manipulated by ruling elites?

The Blue Nile hydropolis, from above and from below

Here I believed that two points deserve further scrutiny. First, if the main goal of the Ethiopian ruling elite is to use the GERD to manipulate the public opinion to legitimate itself, to ensure popular support and to avoid the arousal of dissent, we might wonder about the effectiveness of such strategy. Last year the country has been upset by an unprecedented wave of popular protests and demonstrations, labelled as #OromoProtest, #AmharaProtests and #EthiopiaProtests, halted only by recurring to the use of force and to the declaration of the state of emergency. I think that the Ethiopian ruling elite is fully aware of the limits and the weaknesses of its official discourse around the GERD. Whose Renaissance are we talking about? The one of the Axumite Kingdom? The one fo Imperial Ethiopia? Or the one of an imagined pan-Ethiopian nation? All these references might be highly problematic in light of the highly contested historiography of the process of state building and state formation in Ethiopia. Is the GERD used as a main tool for consensus building or rather did the Ethiopian government start building it when it considered to be boosted by enough consensus, both at domestic and at international level?

This leads me to my second point. Filippo argues that “the Internet and social media have indeed been instrumental in the framing of the GERD and in reaching out to the large Ethiopian diaspora (p. 107). Again this is undoubtedly true and reminds us of the fact that ICTs are used not only as “liberation technology” but also as tools for state building, as Iginio Gagliardone shows in his study on the technopolitics of the Ethiopian nation. However I believe that in our research on the role of media in Nile debates we should strive to offer more data and insights about the role of different actors in appropriating, manipulating or rejecting the official discourse by the ruling elites.

In other words we should not restrict ourselves from exploring – and practising – the hydropolis as a space of encounter and interactions where different people and groups, representing different disciplines, professions and countries, engage in speech and action. The pessimism of the intellect might tell us that nowadays in the Eastern Nile basin such spaces are particularly narrowed. However, the optimism of the will should push us to cultivate and nurture such “heterotopic” spaces in the Nile hydropolis. This is exactly what our project aims at contributing to.

Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is Senior Researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of UNESCO-IHE, where he works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods.

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1 Response

  1. 13/06/2017

    […] could also think of these projects in terms of hydropolis (Menga 2017), whit the infrastructure – and its public appearance – transcending its […]

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