The Shrinking Lakes cross-border investigation is the result of the collaboration of 12 journalists from East Africa. The multimedia project was produced by an international team of journalists, designers and data experts from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda and it took over two years. It contains original data analysis and field reporting on threats to biodiversity in lakes across East Africa due to climate change and human activities. In general, it finds that many East African lakes are slowly receding, reducing in depth and drying up, impacting the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on water and fish.
The Shrinking Lakes multimedia project combines 9 stories commissioned and edited by InfoNile that were published in top media outlets across Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda over 2 years. The stories looked at the impact of oil drilling on Lake Albert in northern Uganda; Lake Wamala and how traditional spiritual practices influence conservation in central Uganda; the endangered Jipe Tilapia fish in a small lake that straddles Kenya and Tanzania; the threats facing Lake Nakuru and its famous flamingo population in Kenya; Lake Manyara, a lake that is drying up in Tanzania; how refugees are conserving Lake Nakivale in western Uganda; and the scientific factors that hinder the development of fisheries in Rwanda. The media outlets that published the stories have a daily circulation of about 35,000 – 50,000. The InfoNile multimedia cross-border story got about 2,000 views and the videos got 9,300 views.
According to the journalists, after the Rwanda story was published, “there was surprise on social media and radio talk shows that the country was buying fish from China yet it has many water bodies… The story raised the issue of overfishing as one of biggest causes of the loss of small fish. The government immediately began implementing the fish net rules as stipulated in an existing law.” The story on Lake Wamala helped the journalist gain a speaking opportunity at the Africa Investigative Journalism Conference in Nairobi and the Global Journalism Investigative Conference. The story on pollution of Lake Yirol, South Sudan inspired a reaction from a government official who was interviewed on a radio talk show and committed to protecting biodiversity and supporting civil society in this regard. The story of the drying-up Lake Manyara in Tanzania, published on Tanzania’s biggest daily newspaper, inspired “re-enforcement of by laws and prohibition of human activities near the lake.”
Five data wranglers from InfoNile and our partner organisation, Code for Africa, produced original data visualisations for the stories. These visualisations were integrated in the individual stories published on the journalists’ media houses as well as the final InfoNile cross-border story.
17 maps and interactive data visualisations were included in the final cross-border project, many of which look at fish populations over time and the status of threats to the lakes, including growing human populations and climate change. The data was sourced from fisheries departments, government reports and ministries, as well as downloaded and analysed from the Uganda Freshwater Biodiversity Portal, which aggregates hundreds of datasets on fish occurrences. The story also includes a series of original artwork depicting traditional scenes of fishing in East Africa. It also included original graphics depicting scientific processes that affect freshwater biodiversity. Satellite images were used to show the changing size of Lake Wamala, and 6 original short video documentaries are embedded. Drone images provide a unique perspective to the environmental threats to these lakes.
All of the journalists who contributed to the story were given a spot in a 3-month InfoNile/Code for Africa’s annual data journalism training and mentorship program, where they went through a series of trainings and small-group mentorship sessions to learn the basics of data journalism and visualisation. The journalists also received individual mentorship, editing and data visualization support by InfoNile and Code for Africa as they reported their stories.
Context about the project:
InfoNile and Water Journalists Africa exist to increase awareness and action on transboundary water and environmental issues through the media in Africa. While water and environmental crises are increasing across Africa, there is poor media coverage of these issues due to a focus on politics and entertainment, which are thought to bring in more revenue in low-resource settings. Compounding issues that lead to a lack of environmental reporting in the region include nationalistic reporting on water issues, low resources at African media houses for in-depth stories, a skills and knowledge gap in data and science journalism, challenges accessing high-quality open data, and a disconnect between journalists and scientists.
These are the reasons that inform our model of supporting journalists: providing them with small story grants to facilitate them with resources to do in-depth field reporting on environmental issues; mentoring and training journalists in data and science journalism as they produce their stories; providing comprehensive editing and data visualisation for all stories; and producing cross-border stories that show the same issue across multiple countries (which reduces nationalistic views on water issues). As we collect and scrape data (often from PDFs) for the stories, we also upload it on openAFRICA.org, a platform run by Code for Africa, to enable more journalists to access and use water and environmental data from the region.
To address the gap between journalists and scientists, in 2022, we launched NileWell (https://nilewell.org/), a new platform to connect journalists with water and environmental scientists in the Nile Basin.
The Shrinking Lakes cross-border project was launched as a NileWell public webinar on 1st September, 2022, where scientists and journalists who contributed to the project were invited to speak and share insights from their research and reporting. 149 people, mostly journalists from the region, registered for the event. Such events have been shown to increase journalists’ interest in reporting about water and environmental issues and help them create linkages with scientists conducting research on these topics for follow-up reporting.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Journalists can learn how to conduct data-driven reporting that is accessible to any reporter working in Africa: identifying good sources for data and scientific studies on water issues in East Africa, learning from our analysis to determine trends in dta over various periods of time, and producing simple charts, maps and graphics using Flourish.studio online data visualisation software. Journalists can also learn how to integrate conclusions from data analysis alongside rigorous field reporting and information from scientists and experts. Thirdly, journalists can learn how to conduct cross-border and collaborative reporting to produce a bigger multimedia story with insights from reporters in multiple countries. An important part of collaborations is establishing partnerships between different media houses to cross-publish stories to reach a bigger audience. Also, translating and publishing stories in local languages is important to reach people who are affected by the issues presented.
Journalists can also learn how to merge solutions-based reporting with investigative and data-driven journalism. Although the project generally found concerning trends on shrinking and degraded lakes in East Africa, some of the stories in the project were solutions based, highlighting local models that have proven beneficial to conserving lakes. For example, the story on Lake Nakivale in western Uganda highlighted an approach driven by refugees in the area that is effectively conserving the lake. The Lake Wamala video also showed how fishermen in Lake Wamala, Uganda had successfully changed fishing approaches in order to conserve this lake. Merging such solutions stories with critical analysis on the overall negative trend provides in-depth information on some working models that can inspire readers as well as give them ideas for effective models to replicate in other areas.