In honor of World Water Day on March 22, we are focusing on water issues this month. From marine conservation to water privatization, we are exploring how Goldman Prize winners are working to secure a sustainable future for our most precious natural resource.
This week we are continuing our focus on water issues by spotlighting women dam breakers. Often at great personal risk, these Goldman Prize winners have stood up to large, destructive dam developments across the world.
1993 Goldman Prize winner Dai Qing spent 10 months in jail for her outspoken criticism of China’s Three Gorges Dam. A journalist, Qing has spent over two decades covering environmental and social issues in China. In 1989, she published a collection of essays by prominent Chinese scholars criticizing the Three Gorges in a book called “Yangtze! Yangtze!”
Later that year, she was banned from publishing in China and thrown in jail. The book, however, did mount national and international pressure on the Chinese government. In 1993, the US and World Bank withdrew their support for the dam. Despite a lack of foreign investors, the Chinese government began construction on the dam in 1994 and completed it almost a decade later.
Flooding from the dam’s reservoir submerged countless towns and villages, creating over 1.2 million dam refugees. Fish stocks in the Yangtze declined rapidly over the last decade and the dam’s reservoir is severely polluted.
Still, more hydropower projects are on the horizon for China. The article “A decade on, controversy still surrounds China’s Three Gorges Dam” in the journal Probe International says, “Despite the problems, the Three Gorges will be joined by a wave of new hydropower projects over the next decade — mostly spread across China’s mountainous and earthquake prone southwest.”
Qing, who continues to be an outspoken critic of mega dams, said “We continue to oppose the hydropower plans… they will create all the same problems with migration and the environment.”
“Industry and local governments support these hydropower projects, because they’ll profit from them,” she added. “And they will be built no matter what local people say.”
In addition to displacing river communities, large dam projects like the Three Gorges can cause significant environmental degradation. Upstream, a free-flowing river ecosystem is transformed into an artificial slack-water reservoir habitat. Resulting changes in temperature, chemical composition, oxygen levels and other physical properties can make the reservoir unsuitable to pre-dam aquatic life.
Additionally, large dam reservoirs release large amounts of greenhouse gasses due to decaying organic matter in the flood zone. According to International Rivers, “A recent study pegged global greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs on par with that of the aviation industry.”
Downstream ecosystems are impacted by disrupted water and sediment flows, which can lead to extensive riverbank degradation and loss of marine life. Downstream communities also lose access to critical food and water resources and sources of livelihood.
Around the world, large dams have displaced 40-80 million people in the last 60 years, with indigenous, tribal and peasant communities being the most severely impacted.
2012 Goldman Prize winner Ikal Angelei has been a leading voice of opposition to the Gibe 3 Dam, one of Africa’s largest hydropower projects. The dam, which is being built upstream on the Omo River by the Ethiopian government, will reduce water flow to Kenya’s Lake Turkana by 70%, drastically shrinking the lake, killing off ecosystems and jeopardizing the survival of some 300,000 of the world’s poorest people.
Thanks to Angelei’s activism, many of the dam’s major investors, including the World Bank, the European Development Bank and the Africa Development Bank withdrew their support for the project in 2011. However, with China (the project’s biggest investor) still on board, construction continued and today Gibe 3 is nearly complete.
“While we understand and appreciate the attractiveness for building dams for electricity as green energy, we need to recognize the impact of these ‘green developments’ on local communities; from increasing poverty because of loss of lands, to increased conflicts over less grazing and water,” said Angelei who continues to advocate for dam-affected peoples.
While pressuring investors to withdraw their support for large hydropower projects has traditionally been the most effective way to stop a dam, occasionally putting pressure on the host government is enough to stop a project in its tracks – as was the case with 2014 Goldman Prize winner Ruth Buendia.
In 2010, the governments of Brazil and Peru signed a bilateral energy agreement that called for a series of large-scale hydroelectric dams in the Amazon. One of those was the Pakitzapango dam, proposed for construction along the Ene River Valley, home to the indigenous Asháninka community.
The Asháninka live off the land, practice subsistence farming, hunting and fishing. The dam would have flooded the Ene River Valley, totally displacing 7,000-8,000 Asháninka from their land and destroying the natural environment.
Buendia discovered that the 2010 energy agreement was pushed through without any input from the Asháninka, in direct violation of Peru’s own laws that require indigenous communities affected by development projects be consulted.
“If the government has given us these rights, it is up to us to apply the law,” she commented.
Buendía organized the Asháninka to raise awareness about the dam and pressure the government to reject the proposal. She also reached out to international leaders, presenting a report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the impact of Peruvian energy development on her people.
In December 2010, as a direct result of Buendía’s advocacy, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy rejected a request from Pakitzapango Energy that would have allowed the dam to move forward. The following year, Odebrecht, the main shareholder in another dam, the Tambo 40, announced its withdrawal from the project, citing the need to respect the views of local communities.
Buendia is now developing a management plan for the Asháninka Communal Reserve that would protect their lands from future development while allowing local communities to pursue sustainable economic opportunities such as coffee and cacao farming.
Want to get involved? Every year, groups from around the world show their solidarity with those displaced by dams on the International Day of Action for Rivers, a global event to raise awareness about the impacts of dams and the values of free-flowing rivers.
This year’s International Day of Action for Rivers takes place on Saturday, March 14. Learn how you can get involved by clicking HERE.