Who speaks for the river?

The new episode of the podcast “The sources of the Nile” features a dialogue between researchers from different disciplines, three journalists, a writer and a water expert, on who should speak for the Nile and how this can be done.

In our research on Nile coverage in the Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese, and international media we often come across expressions like “Ethiopia acts…”, “Egypt fears…”, Sudan says..”. Countries and national governments are personified: they feel emotions like fear or pride, and they act as the characters of a play. But one voice seems missing on the stage, although it is often considered the protagonist: the river Nile. Isn’t it a paradox? The river is a living entity, its ecosystem supports the life of many living organisms, flora, fauna…but who can hear its voice?

In the latest episode of the podcast The sources of the Nile we search exactly for this: the voice of the river. In the previous episode, with Alia Mossallam we discovered how in Egypt music and songs have been used to reproduce the sounds of the river, as well as of the technology and machines used to build the High Aswan Dam.

The new episode begins by exploring what does it mean to speak for the river from three different perspectives. First, Erin O’Donnel, water law and policy expert at the University of Melbourne, explains what can happen when rivers are granted the status of legal person, as it has been the case last year for the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, and the Rio Atrato in Colombia. She argues that legal rights for the river might give, but also take away, environmental protection. A note for our Water Management and Governance MSc students: I think this is a fascinating thesis topic!

Second, writer Robert Girvan, author of the book “Who speaks for the river?” tells the story of a controversy around the building of a dam on the Oldman River in Alberta (Canada). Different groups – farmers, environmentalists and the autochthon Piikani First Nation – claimed to speak on behalf of the river. Who really did it? “To speak on behalf of something – Robert says – you must understand it, care for it, and put its interests before your own”. I let you discover in the podcast who truly spoke for the Oldman river, according to Robert.

And third, Michael McClain, Professor of Ecohydrology at IHE Delft, introduces the notion of environmental flows, the preservation of the river’s water for ecosystems protection; this notion has been recently incorporated in a joint strategy adopted by Nile riparian countries with the support of the Nile Basin Initiative.

A living ecosystem shared by different creatures (Credits: Water Journalists Africa)

These three perspectives on how to speak for the river pave the way for a talk with Wubalem Fekade, head of the communication unit at ENTRO, the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The NBI is the intergovernmental partnership of ten Nile riparian countries, plus Eritrea as observer. Egypt has frozen its participation to the NBI since the adoption in 2010 of the Cooperation Framework Agreement, a new international treaty to regulate the management of Nile waters. Can the NBI speak on behalf of the river? With Wubalem we discuss the challenge to put the river’s interest before the riparian states’ national ones.

If you are familiar with our podcast, you know that in each episode we talk to two different guests. This time we make an exception and the second interview is a collective one, reflecting the polyphonic and transboundary character of a magazine called The Niles. This magazine features contributions by journalists coming from different Nile basin countries. Does it speak for the river? We ask the question to three contributors of The Niles: Esther Muwombi, from Uganda, Elzahraa Jedalla from Sudan and Rehab Abd Almohsen from Egypt. They reflect on what does it mean for a journalists to speak on behalf of the river, and imagine what the Nile would tell them if they got a chance to interview it. You can listen to the river’s answer and to the full episode here.

In the Water governance chairgroup at IHE Delft, we claim that the politics of water governance is about distribution. Not only distribution of water resources, but also distribution of voice, authority and knowledge to take and legitimise decisions about water. Throughout the podcast we have been trying to host as many voices as possible in order to reflect the plurality of interests around the Nile water and its distribution.

Episode 8 was meant to be the last one. However, since we – Emilie Buist who does the editing, and myself – truly enjoyed recording the podcast – and since our followers apparently enjoyed listening to it – we are already thinking of a second series. We discover that a podcast is not just about communication: it can be also a tool for research, generating new insights and opening up new research avenues, and also it is a great opportunity to connect with people, to build and care about relations. We wish to thank all the people who have supported us in this journey – the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs Global Partnership for Water and Development, The Nile Project, our guests and listeners. We will be back with new voices and ideas in a few months. Stay tuned and keep searching for the sources of the Nile!


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

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