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How Two Environmentalists Are Bypassing Government to Fight for Water

Every year, the Goldman Environmental Prize honors six grassroots environmentalists. This year, two have been working for access to clean water.


Every year, the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as an honor for environmentalists on par with the Nobel or the Pulitzer, picks six grassroots leaders from around the world to celebrate and award for their work. This year’s recipients are fighting against a nickel mine, offshore oil and gas drilling, a highway that would bisect a local forest, and agrochemical spraying. And two are fighting for water. In Kenya, Ikal Angelei is battling a massive dam that would deprive the community in her arid region of water and of their livelihoods. In China, Ma Jun working to expose information about water pollution that has sickened people across the country.

Angelei comes from Kenya, in the region of the Lake Turkana Basin, where people depend on the lake to provide drinking water and to support fishing and farming. The Gibe 3 Dam would drop the water level in the lake by as much as 33 feet in the first five years after the dam goes into operation.


“First, when we started, we didn’t have a strategy at all,” she says. “We were trying to stop something. We didn’t know what we could do. But we knew we had to stop it.”

The government, she found, wasn’t concerned about the people that would be affected, so she focused instead on gaining support within local communities. Later, she realized the key: “We needed to find out who was giving money to this project.”

She started focusing on the dam’s financial backers—large development agencies and banks. She showed them how the environmental assessment for the dam was incomplete and convinced more than one to withdraw the project from consideration.

For Ma Jun, too, the key to fighting water pollution in China has been finding a faster, better strategy than looking to the government for change. “Local officials put GDP growth ahead of environmental protections,” he says. “We need to work on that, but we can’t change that overnight. Our environmental situation can't wait for that day to come.”

Ma started covering water issues as an investigative reporter before starting an NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, to collect and disseminate information about water pollution violations—tens of thousands of them. He’s had success going directly to the polluting factories that make IT products, textiles, and more. Hundreds of companies have worked with his organization, disclosing their pollution and working to clean up their factories.

These are two different fights for the same resource. But for both Angelei and Ma, the fight comes back to the people who are affected. Angelei talks about the fisherman who fed her growing up, who threw fish back into the lake to ensure there would be more for future generations. Ma talks about the river running black, and the sick and dying people who’d suffered from drinking from it.

“When we hit some sort of threshold in compiling our data, it's a sort of release to me,” he says. “I have finally done my part and can live up to some of the expectations to those who really suffered and who give me such as trust to let me know all their suffering and know their stories.”

But he also knows that there’s more to be done. “At the end this is still just a tiny drop of water in the ocean,” he says. “Each time we feel excited that this polluter could turn around, we understand that we have a lot more work to do.”

Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

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This article was produced in partnership with the United Nations to launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of cooperation in building the future we want.

When half of the world's population doesn't share the same opportunity or rights as the other half, the whole world suffers. Like a bird whose wings require equal strength to fly, humanity will never soar to its full potential until we achieve gender equality.

That's why the United Nations made one of its Sustainable Development Goals to "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." That goal includes providing women and girls equal access to education and health care, as well as addressing gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

While there is still much work to be done, history shows us that we are capable of making big leaps forward on this issue. Check out some of the milestones humanity has already reached on the path to true equality.

Historic Leaps Toward Gender Equality

1848 The Seneca Falls Convention in New York, organized by Elizabeth Lady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, is the first U.S. women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life.

1893 New Zealand becomes the first self-governing nation to grant national voting rights to women.

1903 Marie Curie becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She is also the only woman to win multiple Nobel Prizes, for Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.

1920 The 19th Amendment is passed in the U.S. giving women the right to vote in all 50 U.S. states.

1973 The U.S. Open becomes the first major sports tournament of its kind to offer equal pay to women, after tennis star Billie Jean King threatened to boycott.

1975 The first World Conference on Women is held in Mexico, where a 10-year World Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women is formed. The first International Women's Day is commemorated by the UN in the same year.

1979 The UN General Assembly adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the "Women's Bill of Rights." It is the most comprehensive international document protecting the rights of women, and the second most ratified UN human rights treaty after the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland becomes the first woman to be elected head of state in a national election.

1993 The UN General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the first international instrument to explicitly define forms of violence against women and lay out a framework for global action.

2010 The UN General Assembly creates the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to speed progress on meeting the needs of women and girls around the world.

2018 The UN and European Union join forces on the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year initiative focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

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As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is redoubling its commitment to reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. But it will take action and effort from everyone to ensure that women and girls are free from discrimination and violence. Learn more about what is being done to address gender equality and see how you can get involved here.

And join the global conversation about the role of international cooperation in building the future by taking the UN75 survey here.

Let's make sure we all have a say in the future we want to see.

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