By Peter Bosshard, International Rivers, April 17, 2012
Last Sunday International Rivers brought together Dai Qing and Ikal
Angelei, two inspiring river activists from China and Kenya, for a
public event in San Francisco. With the Three Gorges and the Gibe III
dams, they have taken on some of the most destructive development
projects of the past 20 years. Through our global grassroots network,
they have engaged in what may be called the great dam builders' Whac-a-Mole.
Chinese journalist Dai Qing, a Goldman Prize recipient from 1992, has
been the staunchest critic of the giant Three Gorges Dam for 25 years.
She speaks truth to power with courage and irreverent humor. Newly
minted Goldman Prize recipient Ikal Angelei coordinates the global
campaign against the Gibe III Dam, which would devastate ecosystems and
livelihoods in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Degrading whole river valleys and impoverishing large populations
groups, the Three Gorges and Gibe III dams are symbols of a destructive
development model. They are located on different continents, and
separated by two decades. Yet the two projects are connected by
invisible bonds: they are linked by the top-down globalization of the
dam industry, and the bottom-up globalization of grassroots networks.
When Dai Qing campaigned against the Three Gorges Dam in the 1990s,
China depended on Western technology to build the mega-dam on the
Yangtze River. As a condition of their contracts, Western companies had
to cooperate with Chinese partners and transfer their technology in the
process. France's Alstom for example manufactured generators for the
Three Gorges Dam in cooperation with China's Dongfang Electric Corp.
Once the project was completed the Chinese pupils turned around to sell
their new expertise on the world market, and soon out-competed their
Western masters. In 2010, Dongfang Electric won the contract to supply
the equipment for the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia. The contract was funded
by ICBC, China's biggest bank. Like this the Three Gorges Dam has
spawned a generation of new projects in Ethiopia, Sudan, Burma and other
The Three Gorges Dam has been built, and the Gibe III Dam is under
construction. Yet through our international network, Dai Qing, Ikal
Angelei and other activists have achieved progress beyond the shores of
the Yangtze River and Lake Turkana. In a sort of dam builders'
Whac-a-Mole, we have managed to move one actor after the other out of
the most destructive types of projects.
In 1994, a global grassroots campaign forced the World Bank to withdraw
from the disastrous Sardar Sarovar Dam in India's Narmada Valley. The
Bank adopted stronger standards and accountability mechanisms, and has
stayed away from the most destructive mega-dams since this time. Yet
when the Three Gorges Dam came around in 1996, the export credit
agencies of Western governments jumped into the fray and filled the gap
that the World Bank had left with their own reckless lending.
In the late 1990s, the public outcry over the Three Gorges Dam forced
the Western export financiers to adopt social and environmental
standards of their own. As a consequence these lenders stayed out of the
Merowe Dam on the Nile in Sudan for human rights reasons. For several
years, the project did not move forward. Yet in 2003, China's Exim Bank
decided to fill the gap, and the project was built with Chinese
technology. Under public criticism, China Exim Bank strengthened its
environmental due diligence and suspended some projects in 2007. Yet in
2010, ICBC - China's biggest commercial bank - picked up the slack in
the Gibe III Project.
Since 2010, International Rivers and Ikal Angelei's group, Friends of
Lake Turkana, have exposed ICBC's reckless loan for Gibe III in the
Chinese and international media. The loan is now being discussed as a
case of lacking corporate social responsibility in China, and ICBC has
not taken up any similar projects since 2010. Will global financiers
finally learn to respect social and environmental limits in their
lending decisions, or will new actors once again pick up the next
generation of destructive projects?
Over the past 20 years we have strengthened environmental standards
around the world, and stopped scores of destructive projects in their
tracks. On good days I am confident that we are making progress. On bad
days, I am concerned that we are losing ground. Yet with partners like
Dai Qing and Ikal Angelei, I always know that we are doing the right thing.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers.
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