Top InfoNile Stories of 2020: Water, Climate Change and COVID-19 in the Nile Basin
Walumbe village by the shores of Lake Victoria, one of the four villages impacted by Busoga Forestry Company's timber plantation in Mayuge, Uganda

It’s been an uncertain and challenging year, but our journalists in the Nile Basin have stayed hard at work, telling important stories of water inequities, climate change, and wildlife conservation in the midst of Covid-19. See below our editors’ picks for the top InfoNile stories in 2020, based on depth and rigour of investigation, use of innovative tools and storytelling techniques, collaborations, and impact.

Projects:

1. Sucked Dry: Foreign Land Deals Threaten to Impair River Nile, Displace Millions

Nakalanga, one of the four communities impacted by Busoga Forestry Company’s timber plantation in Mayuge, Uganda

This InfoNile cross-border data journalism investigation found that foreign investors are acquiring huge swaths of lands in the Nile Basin, displacing communities and exporting profits. Funded by the Pulitzer Center, the project also found that land deals could possibly impair the river’s natural replenishing potential if water extraction is not regulated.

The InfoNile investigation was produced in partnership with Code for Africa using data generated by the Land Matrix. It indicated that up to 10.3 million hectares of land have been acquired by investors in the 11 countries that form the Nile River basin since 2000.

Eight journalists published investigations in their local media houses. The final multimedia project includes drone video, satellite images, data visualizations, interactive maps and multimedia. InfoNile also produced an interactive map of land grabs on the InfoNile website.

The project was published on New Vision and Science Africa along with InfoNile. The project was awarded Best Data Visualization at the African Digital Media Awards and has been shortlisted for the Fetisov Journalism Awards.

2. Champions of Sustainability: East African youth are innovating to adapt to climate change

Mr. Kenfrey Katui (right), the founder of Scope Intervention in Kenya, with staff members in a tree seedlings nursery supported by the organization.

In East Africa, temperatures have risen by about 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1960 and are expected to rise by another 1.8 to 4.3 degrees by 2080 to 2099, according to UNDP. Average rainfall will increase overall but at the same time with unpredictable rains, an increase in intense storms and more droughts.

Farmers, unable to rely on traditional rain cycles, are feeling the worst of the effects. Unusual rainfall has also caused Lake Victoria to burst its shoreline, submerging beachside communities and displacing more than 200,000 people in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

But from Bushenyi to Nakuru, Nyamagabe to Morogoro, youth are paving the way for change, and bringing hope. 

This InfoNile project highlighted little-known innovations led by youth in East Africa that are helping communities adapt to climate change. These included planting trees to prevent landslides in eastern Uganda, selling briquettes to promote clean energy in refugee settlements, starting drip irrigation projects for Tanzania farmers and building terrace farms along the banks of the Nyabarongo River in Rwanda. 

Funded by the CIVICUS Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator, the project supported young journalists under the age of 35 from major news organizations in the region including Uganda’s New Vision, NBS TV, Step FM, and Aica; Kenya’s Science Africa, Rwanda News Agency, and the Tanzania Daily News.

The final multimedia project was also published on the New Vision, Science Africa, and Mara Online.

3. Nile Outbreak: Who is most at risk?

First page of the vulnerability storymap showing the aggregate vulnerability map in all 11 countries of the Nile Basin

In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that 83,000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 and 29 million to 44 million people could be infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail. As of December, more than 2 million people have been infected in Africa, with more than 50,000 deaths.

In Africa, almost 400,000 cases – about one fifth of the continent’s cases – are in the 11 Nile River basin countries, where Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya have so far been hardest hit.

This storymap analyzed vulnerability to Covid-19 in the 11 countries of the Nile Basin, using national-level data on poverty, population density, access to water, hand-washing, HIV rates, and the size of the elderly population to assess vulnerability. See the storymap here.


Stories:

1. Water at a price: The controversial management of water sources built by NGOs in Butembo, DR Congo

The morning atmosphere at the Kimoteur spring in the Kalemire district

Access to water for drinking, hand-washing and sanitation is more important than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic. In North Kivu, eastern DR Congo, several NGOs have built water infrastructure projects aiming to increase the supply of clean drinking water. 

But an investigation by Hervé Mukulu Vulotwa of Radio Upendo Kivu in Butembo town found that the management of these water sources after the humanitarians leave is dubious. Management committees are charging local people high prices for the water, with little accountability for the money. 

The project includes an audio magazine, data visualizations and maps. Read the story in English here; in French here with the audio version; and on Radio Upendo Kivu here.

2. Egyptian villagers purify their drinking water

This solutions-based story highlighted how an existing community response to fighting waterborne diseases in rural Egypt is now helping villagers combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent years, a decrease in the quality of the water that reaches Egyptian villages caused an increase in the number of people infected with diseases such as kidney failure and hepatitis. The governorate of Menoufia, north of the capital, Cairo, has the highest infection rates.

TV journalist Rawnaa Almasry of Scidev.net visited three rural villages in Menoufia that have set up water purification stations using ultraviolet light, chlorine and deep wells to deliver clean drinking water to their populations. In the Covid-19 pandemic, these innovations are providing hospitals and communities with clean water for sanitation. 

After the story was published, the Egyptian government lessened some restrictions on water purification, consulting the NGOs featured in the story, and a Finnish NGO reached out to the journalist to see how to replicate one of the projects.

Her project includes data visualizations and a video documentary. See the English version here and Arabic version here; original story on Scidev.net.

3. Running Dry: Booming informal trade of cross-border water sellers in Rwanda, D.R.Congo hit by border closure

Young boy sleeps on top of jerricans in Goma

About 56 percent of the population in DRC’s North Kivu province have a medium to high risk of the bacteria E. coli in their water, meaning it is not safe to drink. So for decades, people in the border city of Goma have depended on the import of clean water from their neighbor, Rwanda. An informal trade has boomed between the two countries, with Rwandese sellers carting water across the border on bicycles and motorbikes.

But this investigation by Fred Mwasa and Sylidio Sebuharara of The Chronicles found that the Covid-19 border closure slowed this trade to a trickle during the lockdowns, putting at risk more than a million Congolese who depend on Rwanda water. The amount of water going into DR Congo dropped by 73 percent since the two countries closed their borders to combat the spread of Covid-19. 

After their story was published, including radio and multimedia versions, the Rwanda government responded to allow the water trade to resume. 

Read the English story here; French here; and Chronicles version here.

4. Karangura: Caught up between the dual danger of COVID-19 pandemic and water crisis

Residents of Kabende village in Kabarole district crowd at a water source to fetch water. Photo by Alex Ashaba

Young girls are getting pregnant. Domestic violence is on the rise. These are just some of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions in Kabarole district of western Uganda, where water is scarce. In Karangura Sub County, more than 6,000 residents in the area must scramble for water at two sources that serve four zones, making social distancing impossible, found Felix Basiime and Jonan Tusingwiire in their investigation published in the Daily Monitor. 

In Kabarole district, only 45% of water points were reliable and 36% delivered water of acceptable quality. This story investigated the scientific reasons for the water crisis in Karangura, the source of River Mpanga, a tributary of River Nile. These include the high water table, making it easy for waste to enter into streams and rivers, and loamy soils that hinder the construction of water and sanitation structures. 

The story generated much debate and attention in Rwenzori WASH circles. After publishing, the Kabarole district health department introduced a home cleanliness program, a coalition of WASH NGOs visited Karangura to help communities build improved toilets, and the government is now working on extending piped water to Karangura.

 Read the story here, and on the Daily Monitor here.

5. Into Their Own Hands: Kibera, Kenya’s Largest Slum, Tames COVID-19

Free hand sanitizer distribution at a bus station in Kibera

Kenya’s Covid-19 epidemic has been centered in the capital of Nairobi, with large informal settlements the most at risk for spread of the disease. 

But this solutions-based story by Henry Owino and Victor Moturi of Science Africa found that a strong community response to the virus in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa, was helping protect vulnerable residents through hand-washing, sanitation, masking and awareness. This, despite widespread unmet basic sanitation needs and the impossibilities of social distancing in a crowded slum.

After the story was published, more water stations were put in place in Kibera, according to radio journalist and Kibera resident Moturi. Read the English story here and listen to the Kiswahili version originally aired on Pamoja FM here.

6. A call to save breeding ground for birds on Musambwa island

More than 500 grey-headed gulls and 1,000 eggs were killed on Musambwa Island due to the flooding of the lake.

Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, Lake Victoria’s rising water level caused a devastating impact on communities around the lake. Not only people were affected! Birds, too, were affected. One of the most affected bird species was the Grey-headed Gull (Larus cirrocephalus).

This story by New Vision’s Davis Buyondo investigated the effects of floods on Grey-headed Gulls breeding grounds and found shocking details. The floods destroyed hundreds of nests with unhatched eggs. Several nesting birds were killed too. And the local people in the area advanced to upper dry areas after the lake’s water submerged their homesteads. This, again, devastated the breeding grounds for the Grey-headed Gulls. Read the story here.

7. Kenyan conservancies unable to pay leased land amid Covid-19 linked drop in tourism revenue

Some of the Maa Beadwork women, who used to get income from tourism, queuing for the food that was donated by Sidekick Foundation during COVID-19. Photo: The Maa Trust

Kenyan conservancies have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism activities in the world’s famous Mara have experienced an unprecedented slump due to reduced international travel, hence putting conservation projects in jeopardy amid lack of funds. 

This story by Lenah Bosibori of TalkAfrica investigated how the Covid-19 pandemic was affecting community conservancies in Kenya, which in the past two decades have helped local communities conserve wildlife and reduce poaching by gaining benefits from the protection of the animals and their natural habitats. With the decline of tourism revenues, Maasai-run social enterprises faced severe losses, affecting the livelihoods of conservancy stewards.

The Kenya government is trying to fill the gap by promoting domestic tourism. Read the story with data visualizations on poaching in Kenya here.

8. Kenya: Warning Kibera residents of floods using flags, Whatsapp and Facebook forecasts

kibera flood warning flag
Sokomoko team leader Leo Odhiambo raising a green flag near the river, meaning floods are unlikely.

As climate change contributes to heavy rainfall and floods in Kenya, people in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa, are taking it upon themselves to provide weather forecasts, advice and early warning of floods to people living in temporary structures on the riverside. 

The Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI)’s project in partnership with the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) provides community leaders with regular weather forecasts, enabling them to spread the messages over radio, SMS, Whatsapp and social media. They also raise a flag to signify flood conditions, preparing residents to clean the drains in advance, which reduces the impact of heavy rains. 

Sharon Atieno of Science Africa reported this multimedia story on a climate change adaptation solution in Nairobi, involving videos, data visualizations and satellite imagery. See the story here.

9. Uganda: Lake Victoria breathes amidst COVID-19 pandemic, recaptures its tributaries

Journalist Noah Omuya looking at the flooded shop that belonged to Sarah Kaine before it was taken over by the water.

In the midst of Covid-19 lockdowns, heavy rainfall and runoff in the tributaries of Lake Victoria caused the lake to swell to its highest level since 1964, flooding lakeside communities and displacing more than 200,000 people in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

At Ggaba landing site located North of Lake Victoria and Port Bell, a small industrial centre in the south of Kampala, Uganda, life and settlement was disrupted by the flooding water that has submerged the areas.

This radio story by Sarah Mawerere, UBC, and multimedia story by Noah Omuya, a young upcoming journalist and founder of Aica Media, explored how poor lakeside communities in Uganda were dealing with the extreme floods in the midst of the strict lockdown that hindered business activity and movement.

The story involved a data visualization storymap by InfoNile and Code for Africa that analyzed 32 years of historical and projected rainfall and runoff data from the Flood and Drought Monitor to identify potential future trends in heavy rainfall and flooding in the Lake Victoria basin.

View the multimedia story here (Aica version) and listen to the radio feature here.

10. Green charcoal to save forests in Burundi

Coal made from corn cobs

Delphin Kaze, 23, a young man from Gitega, Burundi’s second-largest city, has found an alternative to preserve the trees. He makes ecological charcoal from maize stalks, reported Rénovat Ndabashinze for IWACU. 

In Burundi, wood is the primary source of domestic energy, with 96.6% of the overall energy balance, but deforestation is a big challenge. The country’s entire forest cover is at risk of being wholly obliterated in as few as 25 years, mainly due to increasing rates of consumption of charcoal, which is made from cutting down trees.

Kaze uses corn cobs to make an affordable, odorless coal that doesn’t emit smoke, also preserving the health of the users. After the story was published, awareness of the company’s activities increased and the company was able to set up an agency in another city.

Rénovat’s multimedia story involves videos, a satellite imagery slider and data visualizations. Read the story here.

11. Uncertainty over laws fuel land grabs in South Sudan

Foreign companies have been acquiring fertile land along the Nile River in South Sudan

In the world’s youngest nation, massive grabbing of communal land has left herders with little grazing land and affected their traditional water points. Not spared the pain of the wanton land grab are local communities whose major source of water is the mighty River Nile, found Paul Jimbo in an investigation published by the Juba Monitor.

The Land Matrix database, which compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media and citizen contributions, has tracked about 2.5 million hectares of land grabbed in South Sudan since 2006. Most of this land was allocated to 11 transnational deals, with companies from Egypt, Mauritius, Kenya, Canada, the UAE and Norway acquiring vast swaths of land for food crops, timber production, carbon sequestration and tourism. 

According to Norwegian People’s Aid, from 2007 to early 2011, foreign investors acquired 2.64 million hectares of land, a land that is the size of Rwanda.

Jimbo investigates how confusion over land laws in the young country is fueling the land grabbing, and how riverside people have been affected. Read the story with interactive maps and graphics here.

12. Rose: The Flower Impairing Blue Nile River and Communities in Ethiopia

Thousands of people in Ethiopia have been displaced by flower-growing companies.

According to reports from the Amhara National Regional State Disaster Prevention and Food Security Program Coordination Office, 3,000 Ethiopian villagers are displaced every year by investors who acquire their land to establish flower farms.

About 1.4 million hectares of land have been grabbed in Ethiopia in recent decades, according to the Land Matrix database, which compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media, and citizen contributions.

In this story, Ayele Addis Ambelu investigated what this means to the local communities around Lake Tana and Blue Nile. He found that most of these foreign companies displaced millions of local people and did not help them live decent lives. Compared to the residents, floral investments in the area are consuming more water, justifying reports that the companies target the fertile land in this region and the water of the two water bodies. Read the story here.