#EverydayNile: photos and journalism in water conflict and cooperation

On February 22 we celebrated Nile Day by sharing on Instagram the first photos by a group of photojournalists re-picturing the river for the #EverydayNile project. We will continue in the next weeks to reflect on how to communicate and build bridges over the Nile’s troubled waters through a live debate, a media handbook, and an online course.

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Re-picturing a river

When it comes to the Nile and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, we often see – or use, as it happened in this blog as well – the same pictures. A satellite view of the river, for instance, with the green line of the Nile in the middle of the desert painting the power of water in terms of sustaining life. But also looking at water from above, from a supposedly neutral “bird eye” perspective. Is that how scientists look at water? In the geography of that satellite photo there are neither political borders, nor direct signs of human presence. Photos elicit emotions, and reflecting on these emotions might help us to better understand not really what we are looking at, but rather how we are looking at it. And hopefully by clarifying our perspective we can also better understand others’. While people from Egypt might find themselves in that satellite representation of the river, others, from Ethiopia or Uganda could argue “Hey, but what about us? The sources of the Nile are here, and the river belongs to us too”.

Men at work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (Credits: Jacey Fortin, under CC license)

Are people missing from the picture when it comes to media coverage of the Nile? Well, men seem quite well represented, being them politicians, engineers, or farmers.  If we take the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, for instance, one of the recurrent images that we see in the media is the one of men at work with the traditional yellow helmet. The fact that photos was shared under Creative Commons license perhaps also contributed to its popularity, setting the standard for a sort of genre, “men at work on the dam site”.

An example of #ItsHerDam campaign from Twitter

And women? The relation between women and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam went viral in the Ethiopian social media last year, with the hashtag #ItsHerDam, amidst tensions between the governments of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on the filling of the dam reservoir. The main message behind the hashtag is that the dam will lift out of poverty the girls that are now forced to fetch wood to meet their family’s energy needs, or the women whose health is affected by the negative consequences of fire cooking. While these are of course laudable goals, the way they have been represented, matched with the yellow helmets at work above, contributes to reinforce the gendered stereotypes that dams are built by strong, visionary and industrious men, for vulnerable, poor women.

These are the kind of representations that we want to challenge with #EverydayNile and I invite you to follow #EverydayNile on Instagram. Coached by Laura el Tantawi, under the artistic direction of Roger Anis, nine photojournalists from different Nile countries are currently attending a series of workshops to think about the stories they want to tell to re-picture the river. We are grateful to Martha Taddesse and to Les Voix du Nil (Voices of the Nile) for sharing their thoughts on the ethics of picturing development and everyday life, as well as on how to navigate the vast – and often stormy – sea of social media.  

Media handbook, podcast, and live debate

Roger Anis, Nile Abbas Bridge, Cairo, Egypt, #EverydayNile

We chose this photo taken by Roger Anis on the Nile Abbas Bridge in Cairo as cover image of the handbook “Media in Water Conflict and Cooperation” edited by science journalist Rasha Dewedar and published in open access by CABI. What I find intriguing in that photo is the focus on the perspective – How am I looking at the river? From where? – , the enigmatic gaze of the woman – is she worried about the river or mesmerized by its water? – and finally the presence of the bridge. If I had to find a definition for the work that we have been doing in the past years within the project Open Water Diplomacy, I would opt for this one: building bridges. Bridges between different professions – journalists and researchers -, between countries, and between academic disciplines. The handbook mainly targets journalists, editors, and communication officers, but we hope that scientists and researchers interested in engaging with the media will find it useful too.

The main topics of the handbook have been also discussed in a three-part podcast series on water conflict and cooperation hosted by Fiona Broom (SciDev.net). In the first episode, guests discussed their research on the role of the media in water diplomacy. The second episode looks at training, featuring among other guests also Charles Wendo, who coordinates the online open course Science Communication for Water Cooperation and Diplomacy. The course will kick off on March 2, but there are still a few days to register. More information – and yes, again that aerial image of the Nile… – here.  The third episode focuses on why gender matters in water diplomacy. On this topic, this blog will also publish soon a series of contributions from the workshop “(En)Gendering Transboundary Water Governance: Feminist Perspectives on Water Conflict and Cooperation” hosted last year by IHE Delft.

Finally, on 1 March, 2021 (10:00 am GMT), some of the authors of the handbook will also join the online debate on reporting water conflict and cooperation, hosted by SciDev.net. You can register here to attend the debate.

I am confident that, thanks to all these activities, we will start soon looking at the Nile and other rivers with new gazes. And hopefully these new representation will allow us to build more bridges over the troubled waters of conflict and cooperation.

The project Open Water Diplomacy. Media, sciences and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin and beyond is supported by DUPC2, IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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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