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If an Ethiopian were to walk down the streets of Alexandria Egypt these days they most likely would be met with a question like: ‘why are you blocking the water we drink?’
Since the beginning of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the river Tiqur Abay (Blue Nile) close to the border of Sudan in March 2011, the riparian countries downstream have strongly expressed concerns and fear that the project may halt the water flow.
Even though Sudan’s initial stand was not clear it later developed a positive view of the project. Egypt, the last downstream state from the 10 countries included in the Abay (Nile) basin, however has not changed their opinion about the project.
The three countries have formed a technical committee and other main committee to solve the fear and disagreement about the project. They have met several times and even assigned international consultancy firms to evaluate the effect of the project.
Meanwhile the issue of Nile has become one of the top stories in Egyptian media outlets, since the commencement of the GERD project tensions have escalated.
On frequent occasions the Ethiopian government and experts stated that the project will never cause any significant harm to the downstream countries, but the perception of Egyptians is different.
This is also observed on the reporting from media outlets in Egypt, which has the third largest population in Africa after Nigeria and Ethiopia.
The sentiment of the general public can be easily seen by talking to journalists from Egypt. They think that the project will gravely affect the traditional water flow to Egypt and this is what they report to the public. At the same time the media houses and journalists are key players in solving the misunderstanding and creating an atmosphere of cooperation between countries, even if it takes a lot of time.
One of the key strategies to solve the negative sentiment is facilitating options to meet professionals (journalists) from the countries like Ethiopian and Egypt to create more awareness about the project and get more professional knowledge about the river and the project as opposed to writing and reporting sensational articles and news.
To do that about two years ago Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI),which is a water policy institute that contributes to international efforts to combat the world’s escalating water crisis, in collaboration with Nile Basin Capacity Building Network and other international partners has been organized the first Eastern Nile Media Training in Addis Ababa.
Journalists from Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt participated. Related with the training and workshop the journalists have gotten a chance to see the GERD project at Guba and get further information from experts at the site. The occasion has been the first time Egyptian Journalists have seen the project.
During the training several research papers and scientific explanations were presented by international experts and some of the technical committee members also met with the journalists.
The main target of the training was to create more awareness about the project and magnify that cooperation is the only option for the countries on the basin to develop jointly.
The second edition of the workshop and further training about trans-boundary Rivers was held this week in Alexandria, Egypt.
A veteran Egyptian journalist said that every Egyptian has information about the project in Ethiopia but the question is what and how they understand it.
He classified the issue on two, the extremist view and the other side, narratives from the journalist, politicians and experts.
The workshop also included an intensive lecture and discussion between water experts from different corners of the world and journalists in the region.
The lecture mainly focused on the water from the Nile, the status of GERD and the responsibility of media.
At the beginning of the workshop participants from different media outlets in the four countries expressed their expectation; potential questions and fear in related the workshop and the Nile River.
During the discussions participants and journalists discussed the facts that the media should follow.
It has been stressed that media has to focus on the facts as opposed to reporting the political and non fact based issues so the general public will have adequate information.
Some of the points observed at the beginning of the workshop were that the media should not just write from the perspective of their national interest.
The national interest verses professionalism science is the major issue that journalists have to separate not only when they report about the Nile but in general, according to participants at the workshop.
Some of the journalists from different countries confessed that they give priority to their national interest than the facts, which may create mistrust between the public in the eastern Nile region.
They expressed their interest in understanding how to interlink science and journalism in their reporting about the river. They have also asked how to make sure information on the Nile is fact based, some of the experts stated that this is a good example to show the gap about the river and its narratives.
Phillia Restiani, an expert at SIWI who has experience in trans-boundary rivers and environmental projects in different regions, said that she sees that there is a need to not only to get better information when it comes to the science that shows more evidence about what is going in the region, when it comes to issues like: water availability, what people use, the impact of climate change and other factors of population and economic growth. “There is a need for that information. But then there is also the need to understand information because it can come from various sources and the people come to it with different insights and perspectives. So it is not so easy to differentiate which information is more well informed and can provide the range of spectrum and help alleviate the uncertainty of information,” she told Capital.
“The public needs to be more informed with clear information providing the technical issues that are not easily understood the public in general. The Journalists need to be able to better understand what the information means and how it is communicated,” she added.
The journalist from Egypt said that journalists in the eastern Nile countries have to believe each other as opposed to suspecting each other. He claimed that Ethiopians are suspected by the journalists from Egypt that he argued they have to believe on mutual understanding.
Since the workshop targeted to strengthen the capacity of participants to report on Nile basin based on facts and supporting cooperation, the benefit of the coordinated and mutually understood and benefitting projects were praised.
Participants have also expressed their concern about the water scarcity in Egypt and to some extent in Sudan. And what would happen if political leaders in the three countries were unable to agreeto cooperate.
Essam Elsheikh, journalist at al Gomhuria Daily, said that the media, which is the leader of the public opinion, needs cooperation.
“It is important to train us and to build confidence and support each other. Ethiopia is a big country in its area and Egypt is the same and we need to talk,” he said.
Essam, who worked for the past 30 years on the water and environmental issue for the media based in Egypt said that a strong network between media experts in the regional countries, is crucial to exchange strong information not only on the water but also on social and economic issues.
He suggests journalists form a network that will enhance cooperation between the societies in the region and build trust.
He feels Ethiopia is considering the effect to downstream countries, he also believes that Sudan will benefit more than Ethiopia from the project.
“The dam may give electricity for Ethiopia but it will keep Sudan from flooding, so there will be more land for investment and agriculture, and more water for Sudan,” he said.
He believed that Ethiopia will export the electricity and his country would have good infrastructure for its export target to Europe or the Middle East. But he strongly insisted that cooperation in each country is major option to build confidence in the Nile region.
Essam said that the only option between the three countries is to work jointly in the economy via the private sector, share experts and cultivate a crop that would be better in one country and share it in the region.
Cooperation on high cost projects is another way the countries can collaborate, according to the media expert.
The Ethiopians side strongly stated that the project in Ethiopia would not cause significant harm for those in the downstream. At the workshop hosted in Alexandria, Egypt an expert from Kevin Wheeler (PhD), an expert from Oxford University, who closely, follows the activity in the eastern Nile region, said that Ethiopia would not fill the reservoir as aggressively as possible. He said that the issue is under negotiation but the country is willing to consider flexibility based on the rainfall.
He put the scientific analysis on the short and long term impact of the project. He has shown that the project would minimize the water flow in the beginning of the water filling years. “Once the filling is accomplished the downstream countries will get sustainable water from Ethiopia,” he said.
Kevin said that once the GERD is filled it would have a positive effect on the downstream countries. “GERD will reduce the downstream viability flows, and reduce downstream sedimentation load by 86 percent.”
Furthermore the expert presented his forecast studies for journalists that the storage in GERD can provide a drought safety net for Egypt with a basin wide drought management plan, and reliability of flows to Sudan and Egypt.
The GERD is expected to generate 6,000mw power when it fully begins operating and its cost is over USD 4 billion.