Transforming media narratives to transform water conflicts

From February 12 to 16, IHE Delft will host the workshop “Media, science and water: Telling the story of the Nile” bringing together journalists, photographers and researchers from different Nile basin countries to practice storytelling skills for science communication and to co-create new narratives that can facilitate transboundary connections.

Last week I attended the seminar “Exploring transformations in water conflicts” hosted by Naho Mirumachi and the London Water Research Group at King’s College. I found highly inspiring the ambition of moving beyond the traditional notion of “water conflicts management” that aims to govern the existing situation, towards the idea of transforming the structural basis of water conflicts. Transformation is intended here not in a normative sense, namely towards a direction clearly spelled out by the researcher, but rather as the attempt to open up new spaces for rethinking water allocation. The seminar marked the beginning of a conversation and research agenda, with many big questions still to unravel: which are the structural basis of the conflict (economic, geographic, political…)? What does it mean “equitable and more sustainable transformation”? For whom? Which should be the role of the researcher in such process of transformation and which alliances with other political actors should be envisaged to work towards water conflicts transformation?

There is an additional question that has not been addressed at King’s College seminar, and that I believe should interrogate and guide the workshop “Media, science and water: Telling the story of the Nile”  that begins tomorrow at IHE Delft: can we transform the structural basis of water conflicts by transforming the narratives we use to describe and communicate about those conflicts? How do alternative narratives open up new spaces for re-thinking transboundary water distributions?

We are all aware that when it comes to the Nile, the very idea of transforming narratives is daunting: in countries like Egypt, Ethiopia or Sudan, the Nile is considered of strategic national interest, and therefore highly securitised. Ongoing struggles like the recent anti-government protests in Sudan recall us than we cannot look at water in isolation from the broader political context, in which freedom of information, research and expression are often curtailed. Thus studying or reporting on sensitive topics like the Nile is an art that requires equilibrium, acrobatics and sometimes somersaults.

Credits: Roger Ainis

Still we are ready to jump and co-create with journalists, photographers and researchers from different Nile basin countries our own little heterotopia. Through technical sessions on storytelling for science communication and discussions with researchers that will pitch their findings, the journalists will have the opportunity to think about new stories and narratives to surprise, delight, inform and try to contribute to transform water conflicts along the Nile by creating new “transboundary” connections: between journalists from different countries, between media and science, between topics and voices that are neglected in mainstream debates. If you want to pitch your research to the journalists, do join us on Wednesday 13 from 13,30 to 16,00: here a few tips to prepare your talk.

To think about new narratives, we will begin by looking at the existent, learning about the main frames adopted by the Ethiopian, Egyptian, Sudanese and international media when covering Nile issues. If you want to know more about this research you can listen to the podcast “The sources of the Nile”. Among recurrent themes in the media – particularly the international ones – coverage about the Nile, there is the “water wars” one: my colleague Rozemarijn ter Horst will help us to unpack the relation between water scarcity and conflicts, and to avoid unproved causalities, by presenting the work of the Water Peace and Security Partnership and its approach to understand the pathways between water and conflicts. Margreet Zwarteveen, professor of water governance at IHE, will instead discuss gender in water conflicts and cooperation, by reflecting on why and how the words we use to tell our water stories matter in  reinforcing or subverting stereotypes and power relations.

#EverydayNile: how images can shape narratives

While we often tend to focus on words and discourses, images plays a crucial role in shaping and perhaps transforming narratives and imaginaries about the Nile. In Ethiopia, for instance, it looks like that the traditional image of the Blue Nile falls near Lake Tana has been replaced by the rendering of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as iconic image to illustrate the river Nile: technology replaces nature and the river immediately become a matter for productive uses rather mesmerised contemplation.

Images are key in supporting official narratives by institutions and political actors, as exemplified by the recent gift by the Ethiopian Prime minister to the Egyptian president of a painting where the two countries are swimming together in the Nile river.

If you join us on Thursday February 14 at 5 pm at OPEN, Delft’s city library and cultural centre, for the opening of # EverydayNile photo exhibition, you will discover, among other things, that people of Sudan enjoy swimming in the Nile too…and perhaps they should be included in the painting!

#EverydayNile brings together photographers, journalists and researchers from different Nile basin countries to explore the potential of images in transforming our understanding of water issues, by foregrounding alternative gazes or brining new elements in the picture. Inspired by what has already been done in other #Everyday projects, like #EverydayAfrica or #EverydayClimatechange, the workshop has the ambition to find an original way to link photos, storytelling and scientific research and to share them online with the hashtag #EverydayNile. Follow us!

Watching the mystic river

Credits: Ahmed Saeed

Another domain that we want to explore to think about transforming Nile narratives is the religious one. Religion plays an important role in shaping representations, understanding and beliefs about water. At the same time the relation between science and religion has been a contentious one and remain a terrain for animated debates (here an interesting call for papers on Science and Beliefs in Society by the University of Birmingham). All world religions give water a central place in their text and rituals. How should we take this into consideration when practising and communicating water science? The Nile offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the confluence between water, society and religion. How do the material – the hydrological cycle, water infrastructure – and the immaterial – culture, religion and spiritual forces – shape and re-shape each other? To explore the invisible forces of spirituality and religion we will resort to the video, during the third edition of A Saturday on the Nile in collaboration with “Let’s talk about water” film festival: anthropologist Diego Maria Malara (University of Glasgow) will present his documentary “The Devil and the Holy Water” (2016, Ethiopia/Finland, 12’) on exorcism in contemporary Ethiopia. Archaeologist Teje Oestigaard (Nordic Africa Institute, Upsala) author of “The religious Nile” (book presentation on  Friday 15, from 3 to 5 pm at IHE Delft library) will share his exploration about holy water, rituals and society along the Nile, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Uganda. How the significant transformation currently taking place within different religious tradition in the Nile basin – like for instance the rise of charismatic movements within major Ethiopian religions, as described by Diego Malara – transform our understanding of water and reshape notions of justice and equity in water distribution?  Can religion and religious transformation connect the different peoples living along the Nile? We will search the answer first in “Stronger together” (2018, 16’) a film by the journalist collective The Niles, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Nile Basin Initiative; and then, moving beyond the Nile basin, in “Faith connections”, by Pam Nalin (India, 2013, 115’), paying tribute to the ongoing Khumb Mela, the biggest religious gathering in the world taking place on the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India.

A packed program for a long journey along an amazing river: join us!


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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1 Response

  1. Cristobal says:

    great events!

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