Data and methods

This controversy mapping exercise on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is based on Latour’s (2005) work on “heterogeneous actors and their actions” to map the controversies and tensions, combined with Venturini and Munk’s (2021) method to map sociotechnical controversies. The two scholarships are combined to highlight the key narratives emerging during the UN Security Council discussions on the GERD, between 2020 and 2021. We analysed the exchange of letters between the representatives of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan (the protagonists of the GERD controversy mapping) and the UN Security Council, capturing the contestations and underlying narratives used by the actors. Based on these letters, we explained the controversy with elements such as conversations between actors, the tone of the actors, and networks between actors.

Data collection

Although the GERD construction started in 2011, only a two-year timeline (2020-2021) has been considered for this mapping. This timeline allows us to present an in-depth understanding of the negotiation process and how different narratives emerged since the first filling of the GERD reservoir. Nonetheless, the mapping exercise does capture past events to the extent they influence the two-year process considered in our analysis. Chronologically, various letters, statements, press releases and briefings were collected from UN websites and other scholarship sources.

Data analysis

For the controversy mapping exercise, we only focused on the UN Security Council process, particularly the letters submitted by the three main parties (Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan) before and after the two UN Security Council sessions on the GERD, under the theme “Peace and Security in Africa” (on 29th June 2020 and 8th July 2021). We analysed a total of 21 letters.

We followed two key steps for the data analysis. First, all the letters exchanged through the UNSC were thoroughly read to identify the main issues by a group of researchers involved in the exercise. The detailed annexes of the letters were also included in the analysis.

For this controversy mapping exercise, we focused on specific excerpts of the letters, enabling us to capture nuances and qualitatively make sense of the choice of words and the underlying meaning. After streamlining the data from the letters, we extracted specific quotes and manually coded them according to two elements: conversations and tones.


We captured the thread of discussions represented in each quote. The conservations reveal the main topics underlying the controversy of the GERD. We identified a total of 12 conversation topics.

UnilateralismThe statement refers to the one-sided actions (or decisions) regarding the GERD
International LawThe statement refers to principles of international law and their application to the GERD
Benefits and ImpactsThe statement refers to the perceived benefits and impacts of the GERD
Legal frameworkThe statement refers to the nature of the legal framework for the GERD
Third party interactionsThe statement refers to the role of third parties in the GERD negotiation process
Previous episodesThe statement refers to past developments regarding the GERD negotiation process (i.e., before the start of the UNSC discussions in May 2020)
Trilateral dynamicsThe statement refers to the nature of the interactions between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan
Water rightsThe statement refers to the legal rights to use the waters from the Nile river
Data exchangeThe statement refers to the processes of exchanging data and information regarding the GERD
SecurityThe statement refers to the security implications of the GERD
Role of the African UnionThe statement refers to the role of the African Union in the GERD negotiation process
Role of the UN Security Council The statement refers to the role of the UN Security Council in the GERD negotiation process

We also analysed the choice of words and phrases to categorise the quotes into tones, which capture how actors expressed their arguments through the writing. We identified a total of 11 tones.

accusatoryThe statement claims that another actor did something wrong (even if it does not contain a direct accusation)
assertiveThe statement conveys a sense of confidence (or authority) in expressing the point of view in a way that is clear and direct
concernedThe statement conveys a sense of worry (or care) about an issue
neutralThe statement conveys a neutral framing
boastfulThe statement conveys a sense of pride or self-satisfaction in one’s achievements
alarmedThe statement conveys a sense of danger and a negative outlook for the future
optimisticThe statement conveys a sense of hope and a positive outlook for the future
suggestiveThe statement tends to suggest an idea or action
demandingThe statement claims that something news to be done or calls for action/attention
supplicatoryThe statement conveys a sense of urgency to do something
sympatheticThe statement conveys a sense of understanding of the distress or need of others

We followed an iterative process to categorise the quotes from the UN Security Council letters into conversations and tones. The same quote could be assigned to more than one conversation and tone, depending on the topic and wording underlying the statement. Each quote was read by at least two research team members and then checked by a third member. This allowed for strengthening the inter-coding reliability.

We also coded the quotes according to a third element: the concepts used. However, we did this using the CORTEXT platform, as explained later.

Softwares and tools

We used two software to analyse the quotes quantitatively and generate the network graphics.

We used the CORTEXT tool to generate a list of approximately 2000 noun phrases of up to three words. Once the list was generated, we manually triangulated each expression deciding whether it should be included in or excluded from the analysis and regrouping expressions with the same meaning in the frame of the study (e.g., generalisation for concepts). We used this final list to label the quotes by the concepts they included. Eventually, we used this list to develop network maps representing interlinkages between different aspects.

We used the GEPHI tool to develop network maps and visualise the connections between the different aspects (i.e., speakers, tones, conversations, and concepts). For instance, we created a network map representing the co-occurrence in the quotes of different tones and speakers—the network shows which speakers used which tones in their letters to establish their standpoint on the GERD. Similarly, more network maps were developed to represent connections between conversation and speakers, concepts, and tones and conversations.