Environmental Justice

In 1964, construction of the Kainji dam, 800 km (497 miles) north of Lagos, was undertaken by a consortium of three Italian companies, Impresit Spa, Girola and Lodigiani, who then merged into Impregilo, together with the Netherlands Engineering Company (NEDCO) and the English firm Balfour Beatty Ltd.

The dam, which takes its name from an island on the river, altered the river’s course, creating an artificial lake also named Kainji and causing the forced displacement of local residents. The dam project cost an estimated US$ 209 million, a fourth of which was supposed to cover compensation to local citizens being forcibly displaced. The project was entirely financed by the Nigerian Government together with the Dutch Government, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).Around 40,000 farmers were displaced due to The Kainji dam project, leading to protests, bloackades and public campaigns. The farmers, joined by communities around the project, the local government and some social movements, requested that the government did what was best for the environment and the people. The project stopped, albeit not in response to the protests, but due to a flood that crumbled the dam and damaged the area, doing more damage to the environment and claiming lives.

The restoration of the area and a compensation for the affected population is paramount.

When projects like this would be embarked on, it is only just that people whose livelihoods will be affected by it be carried along. Had there been consultations with the communities involved before the commencement of the project, the concerns they raised during their interactions would have informed ideas on how best to manage the project to ensure its success without too much impact on the communities. Environmental justice is key to the success of major projects like this.

In 2004 and 2005, then dictator Hosni Mubarak issued decrees which essentially privatised the supply of water. This was in line with a World Bank approach that saw privatisation as a means to efficiency and access to loans. Under the decree, authorities in 14 of Egypts 28 governorates were transformed into holding companies and the focus shifted to profit and cost recovery. The price of water increased and citizen protests took place in subsequent years.

From the second half of 2007 till January 2008, Egypt witnessed about 40 protests about the absence of basic rights connected to drinking water, according to one estimate.

The situation led to people accessing water from polluted sources, with obvious health consequences. Protests have continued in subsequent years, linked to declining annual water resources. Egypts water is anticipated to decline by 15.2 billion cubic metres by 2017 from a required 86.2 billion cubic metres to a projected 71.4 billion cubic metres.

While the privatisation seemed to be in the best interest of the Egyptian economy, civil society organisations wanted a people-led process of development that would see water access as a basic right and encourage community ownership.

For what its worth, environmental justice will continue to be a knotty subject. The Egyptian case again brings to fore the politics of justice. What is just and who determines justice will always be up for debate, especially with increasing social inequality in African economies. Usually, what is just differs from one social class to the other. For example, to a poor man, privatisation of water is purely an injustice but to a rich man, if privatisation would ensure availability of water, it is just to privatise. We will continue to have different frames of meanings for decisions taken as it affects the environment.

There is the need to always try to strike a balance after considering all parties that will be affected by decisions about the environment.

Often times, we end up having groups whose interests are satisfied and who think justice has been done, and other stakeholder groups (often local people) who see things very differently. Such differing perceptions of environmental justice are usually at the heart of environmental conflicts.

The above is written as part of my course work on ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE (UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA)

Information about the conflicts was courtesy of EJ Atlas