Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ikal Angelei fights giant dam

Ikal Angelei/courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize
 In my work, I come across numerous projects designed to bring progress and development to developing countries across the world. Often, these projects affect the environment and clash with human rights of local populations – sometimes violently so.   I often wonder how to strike the right balance?

I’ve recently spoken with Ikal Angelei, a remarkable young Kenyan whose fight to save Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake from Africa’s biggest dam project, has thrust her at the forefront of one of the most polarizing environmental and economic battles in Africa.

When built, the Ethiopian-led Gibe III Dam 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, and the project had the backing of China, the World Bank and other major investors.  But Angelei worried that the giant dam would deprive local communities from vital water and cause more bloodshed in an already volatile region.  “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.”

She made it her mission to stop the dam. She founded Friends of Lake Turkana and worked tirelessly to inform local chiefs and elders about the implications of the project. She also approached academics, politicians and influential people across the world in person and through social media.

Angelei addressing villagers on lake's shores/courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Amazingly, she has succeeded in stopping the dam in its tracks through effective campaigning of the Kenyan parliament and UNESCO.  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.

When asked what she would tell her critics who argue that her campaign is blocking much needed development in Kenya and Ethiopia, she replied:

“We are witnessing governments destroy the environment to increase their GDPs.  While we appreciate the need to develop, meet Millennium goals by 2015, and agree that we all have to solve the current problems of access to energy and employment, we cannot achieve these at the expense of the environment, especially with the availability of alternatives and the reality of climate change."  She pointed out that both Kenya and Ethiopia have wind and geothermal energy resources.

"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."

 Read my article about Angelei in the summer issue of the New Internationalist here.

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