Why We Fight – Dam Injustices in Africa

Terri Hathaway
Terri in Uganda
Terri in Uganda

This is my farewell from International Rivers, but not from the struggles for justice across Africa.

Working from Cameroon over the past four years has given me a small glimpse of the daily struggles faced by those living in Africa, which can leave one exasperated: water shortages, power outages, flimsy imports, frequent crime, and small but chronic injustices, just to name a few. I shout angrily to myself about how the state is falling far short of its responsibilities. But I have also learned that where the state fails its people, the social fabric is woven even more tightly. Family and friends fortify their relationships - should one fall, the others are there to catch him.

This community safety net has often been the only barrier to hunger for so many that I have visited during my years with International Rivers. From Kenya's Lake Turkana to Sinazongwe, Zambia to Hadejia-Nguru wetlands in northern Nigeria, my work trips gave me the chance to meet people and to join them in their struggles, not just for justice, but for prosperity, too. I have seen how dams have stunted development and left trauma in their wake. The people I met have forever changed who I am and how I see the world. I hope that I have contributed as much to their struggles for justice as they have contributed to changing me as a person and as an activist.

D-A-M. Three little letters that, together, can cause so much chaos, so much sorrow, and steal away any opportunity to escape poverty. Below are a few small snippets of writings which over the years have reminded me how complex the consequences of dams are, and helped renew my energy to stop the destruction caused by large dams in Africa.

Many more police have arrived this morning. All these police will stay here til you return to your villages, and until you agree to move to Lusitu. You cannot stay here because the waters of the Kariba Lake will soon start to rise. Government has decided that you must move to Lusitu, and the Native Authority has made a law about the move. The police are here to help in the enforcement of this law. A speech by Alan Prior, a colonial official in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, during a 1958 standoff with the Gwembe Tonga, who were resisting forced resettlement for Kariba Dam. [1]


Egypt’s coastline retreated in some places 70 to 90 meters per year, nudging people inland and stranding lighthouses offshore. Sediment instead collected in Lake Nasser, forming a new inland Nile delta, which by 1996 was a tenth the size of the original but less conveniently placed. The dam deprived the Mediterranean of the nutrients the Nile carried, destroying sardine and shrimp fisheries that had employed 30,000 Egyptians." On impacts to the Nile Delta from the High Aswan Dam. [2]

The cases of hyperthermia among the miners who were working on the construction of the tunnel rose day by day; temperatures inside the tunnel could be verified as 122F (50 C). Malaria scourged the camp, and there was not a day that twenty to thirty cases were not attended. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, rose to epidemic proportions.  A doctor's memoir running the medical clinic for workers' camp during construction of the Lower Shire Dam in Malawi, in 1993 and 1994.[3]
Of all the four states hosting mega dams in Nigeria, Niger State is the worst hit by flood disaster. Discharge from the three dams - Kainji, Shiroro and Jebba - has caused serious havoc to the communities. About 177,600 hectares of land, 80,845 houses, 32,150 domestic animals and 38,100 personal effects were destroyed while 100,000 lives were in danger. A conservative estimate of the damage in Niger State alone was put at a whopping sum of N350 million [US$ 2.3m]. 2003 floods in Nigeria [4]


International firms Lahmeyer and Acres were debarred from the World Bank after they and two other international firms (Impreglio and Spie Batignolles) were all found guilty and fined for bribing officials in Africa’s largest infrastructure project to date, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. UK firm Mott MacDonald escaped prosecution by leaving Lesotho before being charged with bribery. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) declined to bring a case against Mott McDonald despite evidence offered by the Lesotho prosecution team. Three high ranking officials are now serving time in a Lesotho prison. In 2002, Masupha Ephraim Sole was sentenced to 15 years in prison for accepting bribes. In 2009, he was joined by two higher officials, Reatile Mochebelele and Letlafuoa Molapo. Corruption scandal in Lesotho dams, [5]


On June 13, 2007 security forces used excessive force to disperse a peaceful demonstration by Nubians protesting the proposed Kajbar Dam at the 3rd Cataract on the Nile River. The security forces used tear gas and live ammunition, killing at least 6 people and wounding many others. The security forces started shooting on the crowd from the surrounding mountains when the demonstrators came across a narrow passage on their way to the proposed dam. Violence against communities resisting dam displacement in Sudan, 2007. [6]
The ToR for the Economic Study encouraged a focus on relatively large grid-connected plants and did not draw attention to the evaluation of smaller scale or off-grid alternatives. The Economic Study does not discuss any other renewable sources of electricity, such as municipal solid waste, solar or wind. In a country where only 5 percent of the population is connected to the grid and there is widespread poverty, it would be reasonable to expect attention to be paid to small and/or distributed generation options (not only hydro) which might in theory more directly address local and rural poverty. Reaction by the independent Inspection Panel of the World Bank into complaints that alternatives to Uganda's Bujagali Dam were not sufficiently considered. [7]

In my time with International Rivers, I have grown concerned about an "upstream" issue related very much to the dam campaigns in which I've been involved: pro-poor energy planning in Africa. I have decided to launch a new, grassroots initiative to bring attention to the issues of access to energy in Africa. To learn more about this new initiative, Energy for Africa’s Kitchens, Farms & Jobs, please email me at energy4africancitizens@gmail.com.

May the movement to protect rivers and rights in Africa grow stronger every day. Please join me in continuing to support the movement by supporting International Rivers. Donate today!


[1]  From The Shadow of the Dam (1961) by David Howarth, p 149.

[2]  From Something New Under the Sun (2000) by J.R. McNeil, p 171.

[3]  From Across the Footsteps of Africa (1999) by Benjamin Puertas Donoso, p 165.

[4]  From “Fact File,” in Community: Quarterly Publication of Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP), Last Quarter, 2003, p 7.

[5]  From Lesotho - the big fish that escaped corruption prosecution by Carmel Rickard Published in: Legalbrief Today 2009.

[6]  From the Kajbar Massacre press release by the Rescue Nubia and Resist Kajbar Dam Committee, US chapter.

[7]  From the World Bank Inspection Panel's 2008 Investigation Report, Uganda: Private Power Generation (Bujagali) Project Guarantee No. B0130-UG , p xxxii.