Opinion

Dam injustice: From doom in Wales to hope in Kenya

06 May 2021 7 minutes Read
Left, Florence Muthiani in Kenya. Riht, the drowned Llyn Celyn. Copyright Tony Edwards and licensed for reuse under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dyfed Wyn Roberts, Christian Aid

The lake’s deep, dark waters lap gently on the shore. The Arenig Fawr and its smaller cousin, the Arenig Fach, tower over the lake, providing a stunning back drop for those who come to relax there this Spring. The Covid lockdown is gradually easing. The roads are busy. And the lake is drawing tourists to its quiet beauty.

Only the memorial chapel, built on the north eastern shore of the lake, challenges the serenity of the day; the sole reminder that this lake is not as old as the surrounding Arenig hills. The slate plaques within refer to an older chapel, and the community that it sustained – demolished so that the lake could take their place.

In the warm, dry summer of 2018, the remains of Capel Celyn village in the county of Gwynedd – long submerged under the Llyn Celyn reservoir (or Tryweryn as it was first named) – became visible for the first time in decades. Homes and farm buildings re-appeared as the lake retreated due to the lack of rainfall.

Following a brief campaign in the 1950s against the building of a dam, the village was drowned under the new lake that was formed following the dam’s construction. The primary school and chapel were shut, and residents moved. Even some bodies were exhumed from the graveyard and reburied in a different location. The injustice of what happened to Capel Celyn still reverberates today.

Some 3,000 miles away in Kenya, drought can have a far more serious effect, with food insecurity increasing and lives and livelihoods put in danger. Weather patterns affected by climate change are causing widespread disruption, from long droughts to periods of severe flooding.

The answer to Kenya’s drought problems is to build dams. By doing so, water is conserved near a village, meaning that during the dry periods, there is sufficient water for the community and close enough so that the women don’t have to walk hours each day to fetch it. It has transformed lives as testified to by Florence Muthiani, a 55-year-old grandmother who is now able to grow crops to feed her family and sell in the market.

For people like Florence, dam building in Kenya is a profound act of justice. In 1960s Wales, dam building was seen as a profound act of injustice.

‘Inheritance’

Two questions determine what makes building a dam an act of justice or not – who consents and who benefits?

When surveyors visited the valleys of Celyn and Tryweryn in the mid-1950s, looking for a suitable site for flooding, they carried out their work without consulting local people. They were there on the orders of Liverpool City Council. Like most UK towns and cities in this period, Liverpool was growing. The city needed additional water resources, not just for the population but also for industry. It also sold water to other towns in the region.

In Kenya, the process of choosing dam sites could not be more different. One organisation which takes a lead in the process is the development arm of the Anglican Church in the country – Anglican Development Services – Eastern (ADSE), which is part funded by UK based international development charity Christian Aid.

Community participation is crucial to their work right from the outset, not least because their need for a local water supply is essential for their wellbeing. Long periods of drought mean that fetching water can take hours of walking each day, as local water supplies have dried up. It might be ADSE which brings the expertise of dam building, but it is the local community which has ownership of the project.

In Cwm Celyn, the decisions about its future were made a long way from their community. On 27 November 1956, Liverpool City Council – dominated by Labour firebrands, Jack and Bessie Braddock – presented their private members bill for the construction of the dam to parliament.

A strong, local campaign to save Capel Celyn from flooding had been active since March that same year. Campaigners drew support from Welsh local authorities, from trades unions, as well as from Christian denominations which still had a strong influence on the nation, especially in rural areas. Hundreds of support letters came flooding in, including from two former German POWs who had been held in the nearby Frongoch camp during WW2, noting the kindness that had been shown towards them during their time there.

In a public, open-air meeting held in September 1956, some 4,000 people gathered to hear speeches from local churchmen and politicians. Among the greetings sent to the meeting was a letter from Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera. In it he said: “Material economic advantages are far too dearly bought when secured at the loss of an inspiring inheritance.”

Survival

De Valera’s contribution captures the heart of Capel Celyn’s cause. There was a sense that a small nation’s rights were being trampled on by a foreign power, all for material gain.

With a community’s needs at the forefront of the dam building process in Kenya, there will be no sense of exploitation there. Like Cwm Celyn, they too will form a committee of local people – not to protest but to help manage the project. When the dam is built, this committee will have the responsibility of maintaining it for years to come. It is their dam. They help plan it, they help build it and they will manage it. At the heart of ADSE’s ethos – as is true of all the best international development work – is the desire to empower local communities to help themselves in the face of the climate crisis.

When Liverpool’s bill arrived in the House of Commons, it was Thomas Jones, the local Labour MP, who led the fight for the Capel Celyn community.  44 other MPs from all sides of the House, signed an objection to the bill but when it came to voting on the second reading, 166 were for and 117 against. In the 1955 general election, Wales returned 27 Labour MPs, 6 Conservatives and 3 Liberals. All of them bar one – the Labour member for East Flintshire – voted against the measure. But there were more than enough English MPs to win the day. The battle was lost.

In contrast to the doom in Wales, dam building in Kenya brings with it a sense of deep hope. Without water, life cannot be sustained. The dams, therefore, are a means of survival in the face of the savage challenge of climate change. They are also a symbol of what can be achieved through cooperation – not just locally, but across continents as Christian Aid supporters here in the UK raise funds and campaign for such projects.

By the time of the official opening in 1965, the valleys of Tryweryn and Celyn had been flooded. In the intervening period, two notably grim days stand out – the chapel was officially closed on 28 September 1963, when a large crowd had gathered to worship at the site for the final time. And on 22 July 1964 those bodies which had been exhumed from Capel Celyn graveyard, were reburied. Their names, and of those whose remains were not moved, are engraved on the plaques within the memorial chapel.

The climate crisis exposes the deep injustices of our world, but it does so usually in the poorest countries, as the changed weather patterns ravage the lives of those who live there. The 2018 drought in Wales offered a glimpse of a different injustice. Through the building of a dam against the wishes of local people, a village was drowned and a community scarred.

Today in Kenya, that same act of dam building, done with consent, brings with it a hope that those struggling communities can find justice as they battle to survive.

You can find more information about Christian Aid Week here.

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L. Hibbert
L. Hibbert
1 month ago

Did the building of the dam in Kenya consider other villages further along the river that might then have their water reduced? All dams have consequences.

huwdavies
huwdavies
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Hibbert

Other villages, other streams to dam, maybe. Whatever the situation it is a better solution than picking a valley some 100 miles away well out of sight and no sense of responsibility to those that inhabit that space. People in those arid African territories are fighting for their survival. People in UK cities just ponder whether they can wash 2 cars, take a bath etc etc Water companies too idle to repair leaking systems. I don’t think your average African could tolerate such waste.

Cynan Llwyd
Cynan Llwyd
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Hibbert

They are earth dams, sand dams and rock catchments that harvest water by capturing rainfall rather than collecting water from rivers and/or streams. So no consequences for other villages.

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