Environmental hero: Ikal Angelei

Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ikal Angelei. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

Environmental hero: Ikal Angelei

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Born and raised in the region of Kitale near the Lake Turkana Basin, Ikal Angelei’s father taught her how to understand the conflicts between the communities of Kenya and Ethiopia. Another lesson he passed down was his belief in opposing the construction of the Turkwell Dam in the 1980s and 90s. Years later, she found out about the construction of another proposed massive dam project in Lake Turkana, Angelei felt a deep responsibility to her childhood community, and traveled back to her homeland to help stop the project. 

Lake Turkana is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest desert lake in the world where some of the oldest human fossils have been found. It houses massive amounts of fish, snakes, hippos, and crocodiles and is the main resource of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of Indigenous farmers, herders, and fishermen. In the last forty years, irrigation projects, upstream dam projects, and a changing climate have steadily lowered Lake Turkana’s water levels. This lack of resource has made the Indigenous community desperate to provide for themselves and their families. When natural resources decline, the competition for wood, animals, and water result in violence by armed raids and massacres. 

Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

In 2006, the Gibe 3 Dam project started construction along the Omo River, which is the source of 90% of Lake Turkana’s water. The dam would drop the lake’s water level up to 33 feet within five years, deplete the fish stocks, and deprive local communities of a critical source of water, which would threaten the existence of the landscape. Furthermore, the traditional nomads would be forced into new areas to find limited amounts of grazing. 

Upon arriving back in her homeland, Angelei was outraged that the Ethiopian government was fast tracking the dam project without consulting the Indigenous communities. In 2008, in order to mobilize the community into taking action, she founded the group Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT). Angelei was able to bring together Lake Turkana’s divided and marginalized Indigenous communities to inform the elders and chiefs about the dam project—none of whom had even heard about it. In early 2009, local tribes issued a Lake Turkana People’s Declaration giving FoLT the authorization to convey their objection towards the dam.

Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

With the power of attorney in place, Angelei went to the local members of the Kenyan parliament and the Ministries of Environment, Energy, Water and Irrigation, and Fisheries, urging them to reconsider. She also went to the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and the African Development Bank convincing them to withdraw their financing. With the Gibe 3 Dam only 40% complete and Kenya deciding to leave the agreement, the Ethiopian government struggled to secure additional funding threatening the future of the project. Finally, in August 2011, the Kenyan Parliament passed a unanimous resolution to demand an independent environmental assessment from Ethiopia. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee also passed a resolution to halt dam construction until further investigation. 

Despite the challenging work, Angelei could not stand by and watch her people struggle for survival. For her continued effort to stop the Gibe 3 Dam Angelei was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012. 

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