Sucked Dry

Country/area: South Africa

Organisation: InfoNile, Code for Africa, African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR), Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development, Mada Masr, Juba Monitor, Zehabesha, New Vision, Science Africa

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

River Nile, the world’s longest river, stretches through 11 countries in Africa: Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, DRC, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt. Over 257 million people live within the Nile Basin, depending on the river to support their livelihoods.
Water Journalists Africa maintains a network across the African continent of hundreds of journalists who report on issues of water and environment. These are important topics, but they are often under-covered by local media houses. Our geojournalism project InfoNile.org supports journalists across the Nile River basin countries to report these critical stories. 
InfoNile is a young platform, launched in 2017 with inspiration from an IHE-Delft research project on water communication in the Nile Basin, which found that media reports in the basin were highly simplistic and nationalistic, tending to encourage conflict on transboundary issues and lacking science, data and multimedia. Since our founding four years ago, we have supported more than 100 journalists from across the Nile Basin countries with funding, mentorship and training in data and science journalism, helping them produce in-depth multimedia stories on environmental topics including water scarcity, climate change, wildlife conservation, biodiversity and others. Code for Africa, Africa’s largest civic technology and data journalism initiative, is our main partner in data visualization and training. InfoNile is based in Uganda with coordinators in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan and Ethiopia; our staff is composed of mainly young journalists, communications professionals and environmental activists, majority women and majority African.
Our stories make a meaningful impact: According to our 2020 Impact Survey, 28% of responding journalists said their story had led to institutional action, while 16% said it had led to policy change and 12% said it had led to a governmental investigation. 94% said it had led to increased awareness, including other media picking up the story or public officials or other organizations citing the story.
In the Nile River basin, water use and access are tied intrinsically with land issues. Countries in this transboundary river basin have historically fought over the use and division of water from the Nile. Currently Egypt, which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile water, is in conflict with upstream countries Ethiopia and Sudan that are expected to benefit from the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that will become the largest hydropower dam in Africa. But while the GERD has received much press and attention, we were interested to uncover other little-known projects – especially those owned by foreign corporations – that are also extracting large amounts of water from the Nile, but exporting profits abroad. 
From our analysis of data collected by the Land Matrix, a global independent land monitoring initiative, we discovered that countries from all around the world are increasingly seeking a stake in the Nile’s fertile lands. In the 11 countries in the Nile river basin, we found there were at least 445 acquisitions of land since 2000 with contracts totaling 16.9 million hectares of land, or 169,000 square kilometers, mostly for monoculture.
The yearlong investigation involved over a dozen journalists, researchers, drone videographers and data wranglers. Throughout the project, we focused on telling investigative stories using innovative formats – data, multimedia and “geo” journalism such as data visualizations, maps and drone imagery – to demonstrate the widespread environmental, economic and social effects of these “land and water grabs” on the countries and communities where the projects are located. Through these investigations coupled with land deals location data from the Land Matrix, we discovered that foreign investors are acquiring huge swaths of land in the Nile Basin, consuming enormous amounts of water, displacing communities and exporting profits.

Description of portfolio:

Sucked Dry is an investigative project produced by a cross-border group of geo-journalists, led by InfoNile. This project, created in partnership with Code For Africa and supported by Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting, combines scientific research and video and photography, with drone, data and geo-journalism to demonstrate the impact of foreign land grabs across Nile Basin countries and highlight the complex environmental, economic and social impact of land grabbing on nearby communities over the years.  

Our team of investigative journalists worked across 11 countries, producing 12 in-depth multimedia story packages exploring land use issues in communities from flower farms in Ethiopia, to timber companies in Uganda and Chinese businesses in South Sudan, to the enormous amounts of water being extracted by alfalfa farms in arid Egypt and Sudan for export to the Gulf countries. Our journalists reviewed troves of documents, analyzed datasets and traveled to remote areas to interview the people most affected by these foreign investments.   

Despite challenges to press freedom, particularly in South Sudan and Ethiopia, they were able to publish critical reports in local and national publications in the Nile Basin countries: Mada Masr in Egypt, Zehabesha in Ethiopia, Juba Monitor in South Sudan, New Vision in Uganda, ScienceAfrica in Kenya, and the Earth Journalism Network. These initial reports were published in 2019 and in 2020 stories were translated into Arabic, Swahili and Amharic by InfoNile coordinators and published on InfoNile.org.

After publishing all the individual stories, we created our final interactive multimedia project on the Shorthand multimedia storytelling platform in 2020, incorporating content from all of the 12 stories as well as overall analysis, video documentaries, photos, drone imagery and interactive data visualizations. This was republished subsequently by national and regional media houses including New Vision and Science Africa.

The investigation was initiated based on data generated by the Land Matrix in 2019. Visualising these large datasets (some more than 100 rows of data) for our readers proved challenging. To make it  user-friendly, we used interactive alluvial charts from Flourish.Studio to give readers a more thorough understanding. Similarly, an interactive map with filters presenting land deals in the Nile basin was published on InfoNile.org. Users can view country-level analysis, as well as get information on the land acquisitions in a particular area. Stories were also ‘mapped’ on top of this map.  

Journalists took drone videos and photographs to showcase the beauty in the Nile Basin that could be lost if land grabbing continues. Google Earth provided high-quality images of Rumaylah in the present day and two decades ago. We used an image slider to overlay the two images, showing viewers the drastic change in only 20 years. Readers can also witness the development of the Toshka Project over time via Google Earth Timelapse.  

To summarize details about concluded land deals, we made a motion graphic using After Effects CC. This tool allowed us to animate the data in a progression that showed the relationship between the different datasets. The satellite map also helped put each country in context for our readers in the beginning of the article. The biggest challenge was to ensure that the data is accurate throughout the video. We overcame this by making meticulous calculations and making sure bar and point sizes were relative across all published visualisations.  The compelling stories, engaging media and the large amount of accompanying data in this story led InfoNile win the WAN-IFRA African Digital Media Award for best data visualization. The combined efforts of every team member produced a beautiful and profound piece shedding light on the injustices happening in the Nile Basin. 

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