The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: media narratives and state building

A new article by Yeshiwas Degu Belay, Emanuele Fantini, and Iginio Gagliardone explores Ethiopian media narratives on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, showing their stunning continuity across different governments, political leaders, and agendas. The article is published in a special issue of the journal “Afriche e Orienti” that will be presented in a webinar on February 11.

A GERD billboard in Gambella (Photo by Michalel Tsegaye for #EverydayNile, 2018)

I am particularly glad that our article on “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: media narratives and state building” is finally out. Beside the main author, Yeshiwas Degu Belay, and co-author, Iginio Gagliardone, I would like to thank Davide Chinigó and the editors of the journal “Afriche and Orienti” for having hosted it in the special issue on “Continuity and Rupture in Ethiopia under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front”.

The article explores how Ethiopian mainstream media portray the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), through critical discourse analysis of a sample of articles from private media outlets from 2013 to 2020. We map the plurality of narratives developed to represent the Nile river and the GERD. We also try to relate the changes and continuities in these narratives to political events, both within Ethiopia and in the Easter-Nile basin. Our main conclusion points at how the continuity in the narratives about the GERD resonate with state-building discourses and strategies under different political regimes, and at the stunning consensus registered in Ethiopian public debates around the dam. In our research on Ethiopian mainstream media we could not find any critical or dissenting opinion on the dam. In spite of the ongoing conflict and of a debate deeply polarised along ethnic and political lines, the GERD stands out as a symbol of national unity, sovereignty and pride. Perhaps the only thing all Ethiopians can agree on nowadays.

Here ends our article, leaving another big question open: how is such an unanimous consensus possible? Especially when we consider that, all around the world, large scale water infrastructures like big dams are usually highly controversial and contested projects. I hope that ongoing research carried on by some of IHE Delft MSc students on water nationalism in Ethiopia will contribute to shed some light on this issue. Here, I would like to share two points based on my personal observations (the other co-authors of the article are not responsible for these two points).

First: propaganda works. The massive effort put in place by the Ethiopian government to generate consensus on the dam and to mobilise domestic resources to fund it, has been so far successful. I guess that a big part of this success should be credited to the special place that the Nile river holds in Ethiopian popular culture and national identity. I do not think that a similar infrastructure on another river, like the Awash or the Omo, would have generated the same enthusiasm and consensus. A second reason that might explain such success is the general perception that Ethiopians have nothing to lose in this project: the dam will bring only benefits to the country. But how these benefits will be distributed among the population? And what about the costs? How the massive resources that have been invested into the GERD – at all scales, from the national state budget to the household investing in a GERD bond – could have been otherwise used? I have never come across similar questions in the media articles that we have analysed. Nor I have heard those questions asked in public debates, social media or the many webinars on the topic that I attended in the past years.

Which leads to my second point: censorship and self-censorship work. Given the highly polarised and often vitriolic debate on social media, and considering that journalists and freedom of expression in Ethiopia are increasingly under attack – as reported by several media and human rights organisations – voicing a critical opinion on such a sensitive issue like the GERD is extremely challenging. This applies not only to journalists but also to researchers. In the past years, several Ethiopian colleagues whose work I truly appreciate for their originality, rigour and critical attitude, have declined invitations to speak on these topics in public events like webinars, for fear of repercussion or of being automatically associated to the positions of the Ethiopian government, simply because of their nationality.

The editors of the journal “Afriche e Orienti” have organised a webinar to present and discuss the entire special issue with the authors, on Friday February 11 at 16,30 (CET). I am confident that will be a safe and open space where to critically reflect on some of these points. And I hope you will contribute to the conversation by registering at this link .


You can read the full article here:

Yeshiwas Degu Belay, Emanuele Fantini, Iginio Gagliardone, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: media narratives and state building, “Afriche e Orienti”, 2/2020.

This article presents some of the findings of a research carried out within the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, sciences and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin and beyond”, supported by DUPC2, IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed in the article and in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of these institutions.


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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