Introducing… Kenya’s dam buster

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Ikal Angelei is winning the fight to save Lake Turkana from Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam. Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

People call her the next Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel prize winning environmental activist, but Ikal Angelei does not accept the comparison. ‘I’m just a young woman who saw a terrible situation coming and was ready to speak out and fight,’ she says. ‘Wangari was really special. She was someone who represented the whole world. I liked her because she was ready to do everything she could to make a difference.’

Following Maathai’s example has placed Angelei in a position of great importance in one of the biggest environmental and economic battles in Africa. It is 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 given the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize – a sort of Nobel Prize for ordinary people involved in protesting about the environment.

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 very important drinking water and food for 800,000 people near the Kenyan and Ethiopian border. It is a dangerous part of the country, where poor local communities are always fighting over resources which are becoming less and less, especially water.

Construction of the Ethiopian-led Gibe III Dam began in 2006. When finished, it will nearly double the electricity for Ethiopia, and Kenya is expected to buy a third of the power from it. The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments believe the energy is very important for development. When Lake Turkana’s water dries up as a result of the dam and becomes too salty and acidic for humans and animals to drink, more fighting is certain. Angelei says the dam will mean less water and food and make the fighting worse in a dangerous part of the country. The people there need food and water more than electricity.

Angelei started the group Friends of Lake Turkana in 2008, after she was shocked that plans for the dam were moving forward without any conversation with local people, . She informed the region’s leaders about the problems of the project and brought everyone together against the project. She and her team also spoke to academics, politicians and important people across the world in person and through social media.

Angelei has stopped the construction of the dam through campaigning in the Kenyan parliament and UNESCO. She has also persuaded major investors, such as the World Bank, to withdraw finance for the project, leaving China as the last big investor involved. The Gibe III Dam is now 40 per cent finished and the Ethiopian government is finding ir difficult to find extra money.

While she recognizes the need for development, Angelei believes it cannot be done at any cost. ‘Progress cannot make people or the Earth worse. We are not against development: we can develop in a sustainable way, in a way that would respect human rights and would not 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 said good things about her work: he says that Angelei is successfully challenging one of the biggest development projects in Africa. China in particular, is happy to give money for these kinds of projects in Africa. Angelei is showing China and the world that the projects will not happen unless local people and the environment are thought about.

Ikal Angelei talked with Veronique Mistiaen, a London-based journalist specialising in human rights, social issues, development and the environment

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