Meet the Right Livelihood Laureates fighting to keep our waters clean from pollutants

News 18.05.2023

Our rivers, lakes, reservoirs and seas are filled with chemicals and other pollutants. Water pollution is a threat to our health. Some of the largest contributors are oil spills, radioactive substances, sewage and wastewater. When water is polluted, the substances spread out and contaminate large areas very quickly. It then enters our drinking water and contaminates our environment and food systems. Thankfully, several Right Livelihood Laureates have dedicated their lives to keeping our waters clean.

The current challenges will only increase if nothing is done to stop water pollution. It is estimated that the global demand for freshwater will be one-third greater by 2050 than now as the population increases and industries grow. That means it is essential to reduce contamination to be able to provide clean water to everyone.

Right Livelihood Laureates Survival, Tony de Brum, AFIEGO, Jinzaburo Takagi and his organisation Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center have, and are, playing pivotal roles in cutting water pollution.

In different parts of the world and with various challenges, the Laureates are doing what they can to limit contamination in water. As of now, inadequate wastewater management leads to dangerously contaminated and chemically polluted drinking water for hundreds of millions of people. Around 829,000 people are estimated to die from diarrhoea each year as a result. Therefore, ensuring safe, clean, toxin-free water is essential for human development. 

Below, you can find out how Right Livelihood Laureates have been working towards this:


1989 Right Livelihood Laureate Survival is an international NGO working to secure rights for tribal peoples by partnering with them to protect their lives and land through various measures all over the world. They have been active since 1969.

Among Survival’s aims has been to stop illegal loggers and miners from destroying tribal lands. One example is Brazil. It was found that 20 per cent of mercury used in gold extraction from Indigenous territories was dumped into rivers, while the rest evaporated and polluted food chains through rainfall. This pollution causes permanent health damage to those affected. To stop this, Survival has been urging the Brazilian government to remove all illegal miners – a work that is still in progress. 

Survival works through projects, campaigns, education and publications and has, for example, helped create the largest area of rainforest under Indigenous control in the world together with the Yanomami people in the Amazon. 

Tony de Brum / The People of the Marshall Islands

2015 Right Livelihood Laureate Tony de Brum (1945-2017) was a leader in climate action, working as Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands. He played a key role in the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

De Brum received the Right Livelihood Award for his vision and courage to take legal action against nuclear power states that did not fulfil their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear testing around the Marshall Islands ended in 1958, but the radiation remains and health consequences are still felt.

De Brum linked the issue of nuclear testing to climate change. The consequences of the latter are acutely present on the islands as the temperature increases and sea levels rise. De Brum was determined that no citizen should have to leave their home due to a changing climate – just as he was adamant about ensuring that his people could live safe from radiation. He was one of the architects of the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. It included the responsibility of all to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was adopted by the Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2013 and served as an important stepping stone towards the adoption of the Paris Agreement.


2022 Right Livelihood Laureate AFIEGO is a Ugandan organisation. They received the Award for their “work for climate justice and community rights violated by extractivist energy projects in Uganda.”

AFIEGO has ensured that local communities’ voices are heard when companies have tried to take over their territories. When Ugandan oil was discovered in 2006, an increase in land grabs, illegal displacement and environmental degradation took place. Oil extraction and refinement projects are under construction or consideration. They could lead to the destruction of parts of the Murchison Falls National Park, the largest and oldest national park in Uganda.

One major initiative is the planned East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), a 1,443-kilometre-long pipeline, which would transfer Ugandan crude oil to a port in Tanzania. AFIEGO has emerged as a key player in the #STOPEACOP campaign and has filed several lawsuits to stop it. The pipeline, if constructed, would impact wetlands and watercourses around the Lake Victoria basin, critical for East Africa’s water and food needs. 

Jinzaburo Takagi

1997 Right Livelihood Laureate Jinzaburo Takagi (1938-2000) was a nuclear scientist. In 1975, he started the non-profit Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) and received the Award “for serving to alert the world to the unparalleled dangers of plutonium to human life.”

During the 1990s and onwards, Japan had several nuclear related accidents. In 1991, Takagi started to cooperate with 1997 Right Livelihood Laureate Mycle Schneider on the issues of waste and plutonium shipments between Japan and Europe. They did a comprehensive research project together. Takagi also helped other Asian NGOs to get information on the risks of nuclear energy on the environment. 

Despite the founder’s death in 2000, CNIC is still active today. The organisation has recently been part of a campaign to stop the release of radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which had been damaged during an earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Together with other NGOs, CNIC demanded that the Japanese government protect the oceans so as not to head into another major nuclear contamination disaster. Much thanks to Takagi’s earlier work, there was a recent scale-down of Japan’s plutonium programme.

Birsel Lemke

2000 Right Livelihood Laureate Birsel Lemke is a Turkish activist, who received the Award “for her long-standing struggle to protect her country from the devastation of cyanide-based gold mining.”

After years abroad, Lemke returned to Turkey when initiatives for gold extraction were started in the late 1980s. Gold mining not only contaminates water resources but also destroys ecosystems and releases toxic substances into the environment. In Turkey, two gold mine pilot projects were planned at first, eventually turning into 560 mines nationwide. Lemke decided to save Turkey from that fate. When a cyanide accident happened in Romania in 2000, killing almost all aquatic life along a 250-mile stretch of the Danube River, the seriousness of such disasters became obvious. 

Lemke founded the Citizens’ Initiative HAYIR, meaning “No” in Turkish, in 1990. Her own house was used as headquarters. HAYIR won support for their case in the European Parliament and made cyanide-based gold mining the national focus of environmental concern in Turkey. In 1994, it sued the Turkish Environment Ministry. Turkey’s Supreme Court ruled in Lemke’s favour and prohibited cyanide gold mining in Turkey.

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