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Network Connects African Journalists on Water, Climate

Water Journalists Africa founder Fredrick Mugira leads a workshop for media in Uganda, in February 2023. (Credit: InfoNile)

JOHANNESBURG — As more people become concerned about the effects of climate change, the largest network of journalists on the African continent reporting on water is becoming specialized in the environmental beat.

But that wasn’t always the case, said Frederick Mugira, founder of Water Journalists Africa.

Mugira said that when he started the organization in 2011, “not so much was being tackled about water.” But now, “we have more journalists preferring to specialize in water and climate issues.”

As an award-winning journalist based in Kampala, Uganda, Mugira founded the network to share ideas and provide training.

From investigative reporting on the impact of a large agricultural industry in Cameroon to how plastics and water pollution are devastating the fishing trade in the African Great Lakes, the coalition is combining environmental, data and solutions-led journalism.

Made up of about 1,000 journalists across Africa, the network works collaboratively to investigate issues around water, wildlife, biodiversity and climate change.

African nations are among the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emitters, but scientists have long warned the region will be one of the worst affected by climate change. Mugira said that more than ever, local people want explanations of phenomena such as droughts.

"We identify a theme of common and cross-border importance. For example, plastic pollution,” he said. “When we identify a theme, we search for credible data across the countries we’re working on.”

The NGO receives funding from various institutions, including the U.S.-based Pulitzer Center and Internews, an international media support nonprofit in California.

The network also has a few specialized offshoots, including InfoNile, which uses graphics to map stories on the Nile Basin, and the Big Gorilla Project, which focuses on the endangered species in the forests of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Water Journalists Africa founder Fredrick Mugira (center-left) and InfoNile co-founder Annika McGinnis (center-right) pose for a group photo at a training session with journalists from the Nile Basin. (Credit: InfoNile)
Water Journalists Africa founder Fredrick Mugira (center-left) and InfoNile co-founder Annika McGinnis (center-right) pose for a group photo at a training session with journalists from the Nile Basin. (Credit: InfoNile)

“When we started it, we realized journalists in the region didn’t have experience in data journalism,” Mugira said. But accessing that data can be a challenge.

One reason, Mugira said, is that scientists don’t always trust journalists and don’t always want to share their information. Another challenge comes when some government officials might want to release only numbers that show them in a good light.

“When it comes to natural resources, they don’t really release data, because they see it as sensitive,” he added.

For Nairobi journalist Sharon Atieno, 29, being a member of Water Journalists Africa opened her up to a wide range of new skills.

“You can use maps, visualizations, to make it more captivating. This is a skill I acquired not through university but through being part of the Water Journalists Network. That’s how I discovered my beat,” she said.

One story she covered was how waste from sugarcane companies in a part of western Kenya was polluting a nearby river.

After her reporting, county authorities there opened a commission to investigate the issue.

Cross-border networks of environmental journalists in Africa are growing, according to Anton Harber, adjunct professor of journalism at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

“At our annual gathering of the continent’s investigative journalists, the African Investigative Journalism Conference, we have definitely seen environmental coverage take center stage with the emergence of a number of cross-border, collaborative networks doing important and often excellent work,” he told VOA.

However, he said, such work needs funding to be able to survive.

“Few newsrooms are investing in it because it is not seen as a topic that sells newspapers or brings clicks,” Harber said.