Year in Review: 2017

Celebrating Loy Krathong in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, Thailand.
Celebrating Loy Krathong in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, Thailand.
Robertpollai via Wikimedia Commons


In 2017, events moved at a breakneck speed. It often felt as though much of the world was in a state of hypervigilance, watching obsessively for the next catastrophe. And to be fair, much of what has transpired, from extreme weather events to a rise in authoritarian regimes, has merited our attention. But it can be challenging, in such a hyper-stimulated world, to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

This year, we took a step back. Even as our programmatic work swept on, we also looked in a deeper way at water – and all the living beings that depend on it – as we prepared our new five-year strategic plan.

We saw a world where freshwater crises are on the rise, from catastrophic flooding to extreme drought that’s driving conflict, displacement and radicalization. We saw communities fighting to protect their way of life (and in some cases their very lives) in the face of rapacious and unaccountable development. We saw the climate crisis placing even more stress on river communities, freshwater and ecosystems.

We see many causes for concern, but we have also encountered countless reasons to hope. Here are some of them:

Antonia Melo
Antonia Melo
Verena Glass

The rise of people’s movements

Even in countries where freedom of speech is severely curtailed, we saw communities banding together, sharing information, and standing up for their rights.

  • Antônia Melo, our close friend and partner, and tireless champion of the Amazon and its people, was awarded the Alexander Soros Foundation Award for 2017.
  • The Thai Supreme Court accepted two of our legal complaints  regarding the Xayaburi and Pak Beng dams. These two cases have the potential to establish important international precedent regarding the extraterritorial obligations of the Thai state. 
  • We were proud to support our indigenous Munduruku partners as 200 people occupied the main work camp of the São Manoel hydroelectric dam on the Teles Pires River in the Brazilian Amazon, temporarily paralyzing the project and winning important concessions. 
  • Activists from across the world met in Tbilisi, Georgia to share their experiences of resisting hydropower projects  and strategize new ways to protect rivers. 
  • We undertook a series of meetings with communities in the Brahmaputra river basin, forging new alliances to protect the river that so many Indians and Bangladeshis rely on.

Rivers gain a new status

Governments, financiers see flaws of large dams

  • We released two reports in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) about the economics of the proposed Inga 3 Dam project, and the solar and wind potential in DRC. One media outlet said our work had “dealt a death-blow” to the project.
  • The Green Climate Fund withdrew its first planned large hydro investment, thanks to concerns we raised alongside our partners.
  • Developers downscaled the Kandadji Dam in Niger, which would displace tens of thousands of people and impair vital waterways that support flood-recession agriculture, to reduce it resettlement footprint as a result of our advocacy at the World Bank. 
  • After years of pressure from civil society, Myanmar’s new Minister of Energy publicly stated that big hydropower dams are not a priority in the country’s strategy to tackle chronic power shortages.
  • The World Bank approved just one new dam in 2017, the fewest in years!

There is no time to waste. We can see a way forward to a better future, where people can meet their water and energy needs without destroying the natural systems we need to survive. But to get there, we know we need a bold vision and a roadmap. Our new five-year strategic plan is the first step in that journey.

Read on for a partial timeline of other significant events in 2017.



  • Mekong communities protest river rapids blasting. More than 500 people gathered along the banks of the Mekong River in Chiang Khong, Thailand to take a stand against plans to blast away the Khon Pi Luang rapids just a few kilometers upstream. 


  • Berta Cáceres remembered. In March 2016, men broke into the home of Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres and shot her to death for her opposition to Agua Zarca Dam. A year later, we asked: Has the hydropower industry changed its ways? 
  • Celebrating the Day of Action for Rivers. On March 14, we celebrated the International Day of Action for Rivers with a record-breaking number of over 200 actions in 45 countries. Communities rallied, petitioned, cleaned rivers, picnicked on rivers, gave speeches, and screened films. They gathered along the Mekong River, the Indus River, and dozens of others. This year, we paid particular homage to women, who often bear the brunt of water work and also lead many movements to protect water.
  • Samba school rejects Amazon dams. In a colorful and highly energized samba parade at Rio de Janeiro's world-famous Carnival, one of Brazil's most traditional and respected samba schools paid a special tribute to indigenous peoples of the Amazon's Xingu River, highlighting threats to their territories, livelihoods and rights. 
  • “After the Flood” film made available online. Todd Southgate’s “After the Flood”  examines the aftermath of Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam. We made the film available for screenings, along with a fact sheet and discussion questions.
  • Animated resettlement guide released. In collaboration with SAWBO, we produced an animated resettlement guide to assist all communities at risk of displacement. The DRC screenings, organized with our partner group ADEV, generated great excitement. One community member remarked, “You’ve turned our home into a cinema.” Community screenings led to discussions on land, rights and compensation. 


  • Photo essay on the Salween River. As Southeast Asia considers the river’s future, we took a journey down it to show what life looks like along this vibrant but conflict-prone waterway


  • Colombian river gains rights. In a landmark verdict, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognized the Atrato River basin as having rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.”


  • Funders exit Agua Zarca Dam. Two financiers of the project, FMO and Finnfund, suspended their loans after police arrested an employee of the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) in connection with the March 2016 murder of Berta Caceres. DESA is the company behind Agua Zarca Dam. 


  • Our Africa team makes waves. More than a dozen high profile media outlets hailed the report “In Debt and In the Dark: Unpacking the Economics of DRC’s Proposed Inga 3 Dam” on its release. Africa Intelligence went so far as to state that the “NGO has dealt a death blow to the floundering Inga 3 Dam project,” and Business Day reported “Kinshasa buries head in sand as NGO unravels Inga 3.” We were pleased to see the report covered by TV in Matadi and Kinshasa as well as some local print media. The DRC government was disturbed by the report, and within two days announced new ideas for implementing Inga 3 project as to counter the original design.
  • Locals rise to protect Bolivia’s Beni River. The government of Bolivia appears resolute to proceed once again with the Bala Project, which includes the El Chepete and El Bala dams. Critics have faced repression.
  • Balkans river defenders rise up. The river movement in Eastern Europe made bold moves this year. 
  • Women of Inga raise their voices. Women in DRC’s Inga region are already living on the edge. Now a dam threatens to displace them and their families; they won’t go quietly.
  • Researchers urge Southeast Asia to abandon hydropower. Dams on the Mekong are threatening the food security of 65 million people. Can the region change course?
  • Cambodian families face forced evictions. The world watched as the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir filled, and some courageous families, who’d never given consent, tried to stay on their land


  • Water, dams and climate change converge. As Hurricane Harvey threatened Houston, we raised the alarm about the dangers of pursuing business as usual in a changing climate.
  • Brazil’s Supreme Court rejects limits to indigenous land rights. Despite unprecedented attacks on land rights, this was a win for indigenous peoples.
  • Medha Patkar arrested. The renowned Indian activist was detained for her protest  against closing the gates on the newly-raised Sardar Sarovar Dam.


  • Endangered Chinese turtle needs free-flowing rivers. We wrote about the plight of the most endangered turtle in the world. 
  • Speaking truth to power. There’s an energy glut in Thailand. So why is its energy company building more dams?
  • DRC renewable energy workshop. In September, more than 40 experts in the Democratic Republic of Congo met to discuss how the country can integrate more wind and solar into the national grid. The workshop provided an inspiring learning platform and showcased the initiatives carried out by youth in DRC and South Africa. Participants cited a lack of enabling policies, financing, awareness, skills and knowledge to support renewable energy development. Workshop participants agreed to create the following thematic groups: youth and women, community organization, investment and funds, advocacy and policy, and research and documentation.


  • We release our new strategic plan. “Our Rivers, Our Water Future” lays out our five-year roadmap to protect rivers and river communities.
  • Calling attention to the proposed Sambor Dam in Cambodia. We amplify the voices of Cambodian villagers  who fear another dam on the Mekong River will doom them to hunger and poverty.



  • Women gather in DRC for  Energy and Climate Justice National Consultation Workshop. 30 women from CSO and Inga communities gathered in Matadi, Kongo Central to agree on a roadmap to build a women-led campaign around Inga and energy questions. Meeting participants identified issues that uniquely affect women, as well as priority issues. On the last day of the workshop, the group created a steering committee to coordinate future work in the space. WoMin has pledged to fund three steering committee meetings every year.
Monday, December 18, 2017