From the Three Gorges to Gibe III: the Great Dam Builders Whac-a-Mole

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Ikal Angelei and Dai Qing

Ikal Angelei and Dai Qing

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.

People displaced by the Three Gorges Dam...

People displaced by the Three Gorges Dam…
Three Gorges Project Museum

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 countries.

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.

...and affected by the Gibe III Dam

…and affected by the Gibe III Dam
Alison M. Jones for

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.

 International Rivers event on April 15, 2012

The New Great Walls: International Rivers event on April 15, 2012

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. He blogs at and tweets at