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Introducing... Kenya's dam buster


People call her the next Wangari Maathai*, but Ikal Angelei shies away from the comparison. ‘I’m just a young woman who saw a catastrophe about to happen and stood up to speak out and fight,’ she says. ‘Wangari really stood out. She was a symbol across the globe. I admired her because she was willing to do whatever was in her power to make a difference.’

Following in Maathai’s footsteps has placed Angelei at the forefront of one of the most polarizing environmental and economic battles in Africa: the fight to save Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, from Africa’s biggest dam project. For her work and courage, the 31 year old has been awarded the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize – a sort of Nobel Prize for grassroots environmental activists.

Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Ikal Angelei grew up on the sun-baked shores of Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which provides vital drinking water and food to 800,000 people near the Kenyan and Ethiopian border. It is a volatile region, where impoverished indigenous communities are constantly fighting over dwindling resources, especially water.

Construction on the Ethiopian-led Gibe III Dam began in 2006. When complete, it will nearly double electrical output to Ethiopia, and Kenya is expected to purchase a third of the power generated from it. The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments believe the energy is vital to fuel development. However, as Lake Turkana’s water dries up as a result of the dam and becomes too saline and acidic for human and animal consumption, increased bloodshed is certain, Angelei says. ‘The dam will cause further scarcity of resources and exacerbate conflicts in an already fragile region. Communities there are in need of water and food much more than electricity.’

Outraged that plans for the dam were moving forward without any consultation with local communities, Angelei founded the group Friends of Lake Turkana in 2008. She informed the region’s chiefs and elders about the implications of the project and brought together the deeply divided and marginalized communities to speak with a unified voice against the project. She and her team also approached academics, politicians and influential people across the world in person and through social media.

'I'm just a young woman who saw a catastrophe about to happen and stood up to speak out and fight'

Angelei has succeeded in stopping the dam in its tracks through effective campaigning of the Kenyan parliament and UNESCO. She has also managed to convince major investors, such as the World Bank, to withdraw their considerations for financing the project, leaving China as the last big investor involved. The Gibe III Dam is now 40 per cent completed and the Ethiopian government is struggling to secure additional funding.

While she recognizes the need for development, Angelei believes it cannot be achieved at any cost. ‘Progress cannot leave people or the Earth worse off. We are not against development: we can develop in a sustainable way, in a way that would not violate human rights and destroy the environment.’ She adds that both Kenya and Ethiopia have wind and geothermal energy resources.

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director at International Rivers, which is also campaigning against the dam, has praised her work: ‘Angelei is successfully challenging one of the biggest development projects in Africa and she is showing the world, and China in particular, which is keen to fund these kinds of projects in Africa, that they will not happen unless local people and the environment are taken into account.’

Ikal Angelei talked with Veronique Mistiaen

Veronique Mistiaen is a London-based journalist specialising in human rights, social issues, development and the environment.

* The Kenyan environmental and political activist who won the Nobel Prize in 2004.

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