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Dam on Ethiopia’s Omo River Causing Hunger and Conflict

Nyangatom herders lead their cattle to the Omo River to drink. With Gibe III Dam holding back the river’s water, grasses for livestock grazing and soil moisture for crop production have diminished downstream for the indigenous tribal communities, spreading hunger in the lower Omo Valley. Photo: Alison M. Jones, courtesy of International Rivers/Flickr/Creative Commons
Nyangatom herders lead their cattle to the Omo River to drink. With Gibe III Dam holding back the river’s water, grasses for livestock grazing and soil moisture for crop production have diminished downstream for the indigenous tribal communities, spreading hunger in the lower Omo Valley. Photo: Alison M. Jones, courtesy of International Rivers.

In the lower Omo River Valley of southern Ethiopia, a spreading humanitarian emergency that threatens to spawn conflicts in the region is largely being met with silence from both the Ethiopian government and the international community.

The filling of the reservoir behind Gibe III Dam on the Omo River is holding back the flows needed by some 200,000 indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods.

“People are starving and dying,” according to a trusted source who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from speaking out. “They need international support.”

The indigenous communities of the Omo Valley, including those of the Bodi, Hamer, Karo, Kwegu, and Mursi tribes, rely on the natural flood cycles of the Omo River for their sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing. Like generations of their forebears, they plant sorghum, maize and beans in the riverside soils after the yearly flood, relying on the moisture and nutrient-rich sediment the Omo deposits each year.

With the filling of the Gibe III reservoir, the needed water hasn’t reached the tribes’ riverside lands, curtailing harvests and grazing. Desperate to find grass, herders have moved their cattle into Mago National Park, which has unleashed fighting with government soldiers charged with protecting the park and its wildlife. Many pastoralists have been killed, according to my source.

The Ethiopian government views the Gibe III Dam as essential to its economic advancement. The dam rises 243 meters (797 feet), can hold back 14.7 billion cubic meters of water, and has a planned hydropower capacity of 1,870 megawatts. Electricity generation has already begun.

Gibe III is the third and largest dam in a planned cascade of five dams on the Omo. It is intended to supply half of Ethiopia’s electricity, as well as provide power to export to neighboring Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti.

Besides generating hydropower, the Gibe III facility will supply irrigation water to large-scale, commercial agricultural enterprises, including the state-owned Kuraz sugarcane scheme and foreign ventures in cotton, rice, and palm oil.

The government is transforming more than 375,000 hectares (926,000 acres) of the lower Omo into industrial plantations. Virtually all of the big sugar lands are adjacent to the west bank of the Omo River, which is vital agricultural and grazing land for the local tribal communities.

In a process known as “villagisation,” the Ethiopian government reportedly forces indigenous communities in the Omo Valley to make room for the big commercial plantations, without adequate consultation or compensation. Interviews conducted in several lower Omo communities during a 2012 field investigation by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K.’s Department for International Development show that “egregious human rights violations have taken place,” according to the California-based Oakland Institute. The aid agencies, according to the institute, have chosen to ignore those findings.

The siphoning off of Omo River water for industrial agriculture will have long-term impacts not only on the valley’s indigenous communities, but also on Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which receives 90 percent of its inflow from the Omo River. Situated at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Turkana is one of the oldest lakes on Earth. It supports a rich traditional fishing culture and provides vital protein for local people.

This satellite image shows the filling of the reservoir behind the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia. Photo: Landsat/courtesy of International Rivers
This satellite image shows the filling of the reservoir behind the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia. Photo: Landsat/courtesy of International Rivers

Scientists have warned that the lake could shrink dramatically with the completion of Gibe III.

The reservoir-filling process could reduce inflow to the lake by two-thirds for three years. But even after the reservoir is filled, flows into Lake Turkana will be reduced by the diversion of Omo River water for large-scale irrigated agriculture. Without the river’s yearly supply, Lake Turkana would steadily lose water, because evaporation losses would no longer be balanced by inflows.

Indeed, the devastation to the lake’s ecology and fisheries could rival that of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has lost more than 80 percent of its volume of water through excessive diversions of the two rivers that flow into it.

Without question, Ethiopia needs water and energy development to move more of its people out of poverty. But the government should cease the filling of the Gibe III reservoir until it has remedied the hunger, destitution and displacement being wrought upon the tribal people who have lived sustainability in the Omo Valley for centuries.

It should also work with river scientists to develop a strategy for the dam’s operation that will secure the river flows tribal people depend on for their crop production and livestock grazing.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis worsens in the Omo Valley, with the potential for more starvation and, as land and water resources dwindle, more conflict between the tribes and local governments. The forced resettlement of the indigenous Omo people leaves them with no sustainable means of feeding themselves or their livestock.

Donor countries that provide aid to Ethiopia could help by putting pressure on the government to remedy the tragic consequences now unfolding.

As my source communicated to me: Educated pastoral people “are too afraid to say the truth….I understand! But the truth is people are starving.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Comments

  1. QualisRex
    Palermo
    March 11, 3:21 pm

    OK, this is getting ridiculous. I need to expose what the propagandist “Maxim” posted below: the pictures are of Surma people in SOUTH SUDAN who were beaten and arrested by SOUTH SUDAN police (you can even read the word “South” on the truck) . Once again…South Sudan…NOT Ethiopia. You people will stop at nothing to defame Ethiopia, even resorting false information, which ANYONE can easily verify: http://www.humanityhelpingsudanproject.org/
    http://ethsat.com/a-former-mp-says-crime-against-the-surma-people-had-links-to-land-grab-and-land-taken-by-south-sudan/

  2. Maxim
    NA
    March 6, 11:01 am
  3. Abyssinian2000EC
    Djibouti
    January 29, 9:26 am

    All your evidences are from Ethiopias foe institutions (Oakland Institute, survival int’nal & Int’nal rivers …) which are crying infront of any bank that can lend money to Ethiopia. They want to see Ethiopia always looking for WFP food aid & we be guided by white chauvinists for their amusement.

    Who are you people by the way to care for Ethiopians more than the people and government of Ethiopia.
    Ethiopia which has been once a super power 3000 years before Amerigo vispuchi was born (where the name America is derived) is working hard to pull out its people from the darkness through clean & green energy.

    Regardless of all the conspiracies coming from white chauvinists & Arabization deeds, Ethiopia is marching on the right track towards its ancient position in its own relentless effort.

    Ethiopia is home to nearly 100 million people, but with out electric supply most of the people. In USA only in New York , the consumption is 30,000 MW where as in Ethiopia so far it is only 2,400 MW. The sadest thing is these chauvinists advised us why you need this all when we were building Gilgel Gibe I which produces 180 MW fourteen years ago. So how can I expect wel done from these self honored environmentalists or activists when we are finishing a 1870 MW of Gilgel gibe iii hydroelectric generation which is 10 times that of gilgel gibe I.

    They never understand that we Ethiopians are suffering not to accept the shame of our poverty having been the only independent country on earth with the deliberately belittled great ancient civilization by those chauvinists. Our difference is not about a dam it goes millenia.

    I don’t expect a dove to be hatched from snakes’ egg. The more we develop the tougher your objections will be expected.

    We will never forget who were on our side and on the opposite side, only a matter of time.

  4. QualisRex
    January 14, 8:49 pm

    I agree with the commentator “Ethiopia” on Jan 1. Your article comes off as a propaganda piece to anyone familiar with the region or situation. The fact is, the banks of the Omo river have been receding for the last 30 years (as has lake Turkana) with absolutely no intervention from the government. THIS has contributed to massive migrations, food shortages and most importantly FIGHTING among the MANY tribes of the Omo valley. The Gibe III project was designed to provide MUCH NEEDED infrastructure and stability to a region which has been in constant conflict due to the changes in the climate (once again…not man-made or from “the government”). Your “anonymous source” (laughable) and your lack of perspective simply makes you come off as yet another dumb blond, American interventionalist who thinks she knows more about how Africans should REALLY live without actually having enough information on the topic to make a sound judgment. Thank God Ethiopia doesn’t need (or care about) your lot. Ethiopia is doing just fine these days, so you can move on to another cause and possibly gain some credibility…which after reading through these comments you should realize…is nonexistent at this point.

  5. Extraterrstrial
    Ethiopia
    January 1, 5:13 am

    I wish you know how much I am sick and tired of mambo jumbo article written about this dam. What a sellout souls are thinking to keep the Omo Vally people in the same way they are, what kind of sickness is that cause people like you to think Ethiopia must live in darkness for eternity? I will never believe Any white person telling me they are concerned about the rights of the Omo basin people. I think first you need to remove the beam from your own eye before you look in to Ethiopia. First stop the Genocide of Roma people all over Europe, Black and Red Indians in North America, You are the mother of all hypocrites hands of Abyssinia. When I see people like you confusing the international community for some hidden political agenda of keeping Africa in the dark forever, I feel castrated, rejected and helpless to admit that our world is a mocking ground for people like you and unaccountable international organization that is incubating you.

    • Sandra Postel
      January 1, 11:02 am

      Dear Extraterrestrial — Thank you for taking the time to write, but you completely misconstrue my points. And to be clear, I have written about concerns of downstream populations, including Native Americans, from dams and development of North American rivers, as well, including the Colorado. The main point is that sustainable development can and must take place without so much harm to downstream people and ecosystems.

  6. jan bella
    United Kingdom
    December 23, 2015, 1:59 pm

    I have just returned from the Omo valley spending there 2 weeks, meeting and talking with local people and tribes. Local people had shown me their concerns about building dams on the river and how is this going to change their life. Lot of them are talking about relocating and how will this ruin their lives. I understand Ethiopia wants to evolve and improve but these tribes shouldnt pay for it with their lives.

    • Sandra Postel
      January 1, 11:05 am

      Dear Jan, thank you for writing ad sharing your reflections from your two weeks in the Omo Valley.

  7. hawa
    addiss
    December 14, 2015, 5:41 pm

    Africans have to do some for themselves rather than waiting
    the so called aid the self proclaimed DONORS.
    Ethiopia is in the right direction,and has to do this at any cost.
    no more HUMAN right lessons to us.

  8. Muna
    December 5, 2015, 5:47 pm

    Correction to author: Gibe III and Grand Renaissance dams are both funded 100% by Ethiopian government and through sale of bonds to citizens. Zero foreign aid money used, so please stop taking credit.

    • Sandra Postel
      December 6, 2015, 7:35 pm

      I did not say that the US was helping fund Gibe III (or Grand Renaissance), only that the US provides aid to Ethiopia for its development.

  9. Tesfaye
    Ethiopia
    December 5, 2015, 6:31 am

    The author is putting all the negative aspects of the project which has millions fold positive impacts for the national (Ethiopia) as well as for the regional (East African) development. Yes of course, the current drought in Ethiopia is affecting many people in other parts of the country and also in East Africa. But the cause of all these emergencies is not because of the multiple other dams constructed everywhere but it is because of the climate change which is mainly caused by the greedy human actions elsewhere. I know that the author is worried about the ‘Aid money’ her government is supplying to Ethiopia. I think it should be well understood that the country is working towards getting rid-off your aid and creating local community owned development capacity to substantially benefit all downstream users of the Omo river, like any other part of the country.
    I was born and brought up in upper Omo river valley where the people suffered from the overflow and destruction of river for centuries yet no one raised any issue of rescuing the people, at least constructing a single bridge. We also have a very short memory that the flood of the river in downstream users area has been claiming the lives of thousands of people and also destroying their livelihoods.
    Now which action is really believed to have a positive change for the nation which can benefit all?
    If we are really a good Development thinkers, we should be able look at a wide range of tradeoffs & see which could be an optimum solution for the game to win the absolute poverty. I know this the limitation in Humanitarian industries which focus at ‘micro’ level loses ignoring the ‘macros’.
    I also have a big doubt on the scientific base of the authors opinions. It seems a report based on single corner idea. After the Dam area the Omo river has big other tributaries like Deme river, Maze river and others that can keep the volume of water undiminished. I may agree that the dam reduces run off/flood. Even for me dependence on flood for agricultural production is not safe and better solution for sustainable change in the livelihood of the downstream users. Rather government of Ethiopia can think of the ‘villagisation’ program with irrigation schemes.
    As Ethiopians we are against any kind human right violation in whatsoever way it may be. We also like to enjoy freedom of speech and roles of media. But sometimes media communications by some people on sensitive national issues like this one calls for further battles instead of creating national consensus.

    • Sandra Postel
      December 5, 2015, 7:53 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you make a very important point about looking at the wide range of trade-offs, which then allows for a maximization of benefits to all.

  10. David
    December 3, 2015, 11:55 pm

    To watch 500,000 people, 200,000 in the Omo Valley and 300,000 around Lake Turkana have their lives ruined is going to be painful to witness. People all over the world will watch in the coming years as what were self-sufficient communities will have their children’s bellies become bloated and their hair turn from black to red from lack of nutrition. The Omo Basin will become an area of mass conflict as tribes fight over the meager resources left. The dam builder Salini with its lies about an “artificial flood” will hopefully be sued. The Omo Valley was a wonderful place but now we get another Aral Sea, one of the world’s worst environmental disasters that makes one cringe too see the pictures.

    The Ethiopian government has stifled even the ability of the people of the Omo Valley to speak up in their defense. The jails in Jinka were full of local people arrested for not wanting plantations to be made of their homes. Some people at least speak out anonymously.

    Rest in peace Omo Valley. I love you.

  11. Piper Mackay
    December 3, 2015, 5:45 pm

    I have never responded to an article, but I can no longer sit by when what is suppose to be a reputable publication is becoming so irresponsible in its reporting. I spend a lot of time in the Omo Valley and was there the whole month of October. Yes much of your reporting is true and yes this is an urgent situation, but the people are not starving yet. Due to the diversion of the Omo, almost a year ago, many of the tribes have not been able to plant and there is no harvest this Dec, so if the government does not react immediately there will be a serious hunger problem. Why are you not putting boots on the ground and investigating this before putting out such an article??????? National Geographic has an explorer in resident in the Omo, who actually spends most of his time in the states. He is from the Kara Tribe and has first hand knowledge of everything going on. Why is he not interviewed in your article??? He would be protects were as the people living there are too afraid to talk and with good reason. People who have discussed these issues have been known to disappear, die, and be sent to prison very quickly. This situation has been bad for 5 years, why are you just now writing this article?This is not a big secret. If the people and the organizations you quote and work for had cared, you would have been addressing this issue and doing something about it much earlier than just writing this article for sensationalism, just before the situation turns into a catastrophic one. If you had boots on the ground 3-4 years ago you would have seen the government taking the land, clearing the land and leasing it all out to foreign investment. No person should write and article like this without being the source, without actually taking the time to care enough to put boots on the ground and find out the truth…. VERY SAD

    • Sandra Postel
      December 4, 2015, 1:37 pm

      My source is from the Omo Valley.

  12. Piper Mackay
    Anywhere in East Africa
    December 3, 2015, 5:44 pm

    I have never responded to an article, but I can no longer sit by when what is suppose to be a reputable publication is becoming so irresponsible in its reporting. I spend a lot of time in the Omo Valley and was there the whole month of October. Yes much of your reporting is true and yes this is an urgent situation, but the people are not starving yet. Due to the diversion of the Omo, almost a year ago, many of the tribes have not been able to plant and there is no harvest this Dec, so if the government does not react immediately there will be a serious hunger problem. Why are you not putting boots on the ground and investigating this before putting out such an article??????? National Geographic has an explorer in resident in the Omo, who actually spends most of his time in the states. He is from the Kara Tribe and has first hand knowledge of everything going on. Why is he not interviewed in your article??? He would be protects were as the people living there are too afraid to talk and with good reason. People who have discussed these issues have been known to disappear, die, and be sent to prison very quickly. This situation has been bad for 5 years, why are you just now writing this article?This is not a big secret. If the people and the organizations you quote and work for had cared, you would have been addressing this issue and doing something about it much earlier than just writing this article for sensationalism, just before the situation turns into a catastrophic one. If you had boots on the ground 3-4 years ago you would have seen the government taking the land, clearing the land and leasing it all out to foreign investment. No person should write and article like this without being the source, without actually taking the time to care enough to put boots on the ground and find out the truth…. VERY SAD.

  13. Michael
    December 3, 2015, 4:31 pm

    Basically the writer is arguing that the dam should not have been built and the 200,000 indigenous tribal people should have been left the way they have lived their life since time immoral: uneducated, uncivilized and primitive life style, all to quench their thirst for fascination into a mysterious tribal life, not to say that doing so is bad. There are many important things in the world and some are more important than others and Ethiopia is doing the most important thing first, develop its water resources for better quality of life for its sons and daughters. I have now lost complete trust in the West and their scholar’s viewpoint in Africa and Ethiopia in particular. They have done for us nothing but great harm over the years even after post colonialism. Our sorrows serve as melodies to their amazing grace. They encourage planting tree in their own countries but they come in record numbers in our land to cut trees for timber.

  14. Mesfin
    Ethiopia
    December 3, 2015, 2:24 pm

    Does anyone know what really did go wrong with the so-called National Geography? I have never seen a single piece from them favoring poor Ethiopia. Always cursing. We have no option but to go ahead. History tells us don’t give a s*** to the WEST.

  15. Beatrice H.
    Berkeley, CA
    December 3, 2015, 1:10 pm

    Amazing, author concerned about social and ecological consequences of large dams, as if they are building a noisy community swimming pool in the suburbs.

    Hydroelectric dams (Green energy) have changed the course of mankind for generations. When did this become a negative issue?

  16. Josh
    December 3, 2015, 10:56 am

    Camille, there’s no freedom of speech in Ethiopia and people are routinely detained for much less than speaking to journalists. Would you risk your neck by being quoted?

  17. Optimum
    December 3, 2015, 10:43 am

    Thank you for….”anonymous, trusted source…..lies” LOL
    I think you want the people living in Omo river to be the showcase of ancient civilization! If development underway there, it means you and your children lack a people to memorize ancient civilization, and ancient life. As of today, it is impossible to pressurize us one way or the other way! Your likes were barking for 5 years, but you brought nothing except big lies. Regarding your aid, it is not used for such development, you know that. But you use it us a mouth opening key. If your aid is used to pressurize us to stop development and modernization, it can be diverted to HELL or other colonization minded people. THE DOG BARKS THE CAMEL WALKS FAST!

  18. Abraham
    England
    December 3, 2015, 7:40 am

    I live in England where we have a 24 hrs electric supply and clean and safe water. It is wonderful. I have even the lexury to send my child and wife to a local Virgin swimming pool. I wash my car once a week with clean water.
    I remember the day I lived in Addis and Gambela (750 KM away from the capital Addis). The electric supply was not reliable and the hospital where I worked had many incidents where the life saving machines where stopped because of interruption on power supply.
    In one of the study I did in Gamella town, more than 70% of the children in the primary school had one or more parsitic diseases in their gut. No proper and clean water supply.
    I as a person who experienced the two faces of the world we live in fully support the government of Ethiopia.The dam will not only be used to generate electric power but also to irrigate the fertile land of the omo river.
    The writer states that endogenous people as opposed to whom. I am an endogenous citizen like the 90 million people living in Ethiopia. She is not talking about Austerlia or USA where new settlers from Europe. She is talking about a country which never been colonised except a 5 years occupation by Italy.
    Development is essential to raise not only the local people in one geographical area but the whole of the people. Even the local people should be able to adopt the technology in the year 2015 not to depend only the rain or the natural phenomena. They should share the benefits of dams (availability of water supply through out the year) and they should also have electric power in their house to cook and the children to read their books in the night.
    The writer in my opnion is insulting the people of Omo and the people of Ethiopia. We know what is best for us. We do not expect somebody from the other side of the planet Earth to give us solution for our soecial and economic problems.

    • Sandra Postel
      December 3, 2015, 8:11 am

      Abraham: Thank you for your comment. I agree with much of what you say. But first, as a citizen of a country that gives aid to Ethiopia for its development, I do indeed have not only a right but an obligation to speak out if those development funds could be used more wisely and cause less harm to people and the environment. As I said in my comment above, I completely agree that Ethiopia needs to develop its land, water and economy. Here in the United States, we harmed many river ecosystems and Indian tribes in the way we developed our lands and waters. It is not a question of development or no development, but whether development is sustainable and equitable. I am not preaching, but sharing observations based on new scientific understanding and the international recognition that “development” should include a consultative process with the people affected and not make the poorest people less well off than they were before.

  19. solomon
    ethiopia
    December 3, 2015, 7:01 am

    you are strongly sided. why you bring important options to the development of the country if you have. are you wishing to stop the country using its river and natural resource. i agree with you on some points specially the negative impact of the projects. but you should be fair and compare the importance and negative impact of all these activities.

    • Sandra Postel
      December 3, 2015, 8:01 am

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, this is complicated. As I say in my piece, of course Ethiopia needs to develop its land and water assets to advance its economy and the well being of its people. But in recent decades we have learned so much about the social and ecological consequences of large dams, both about how to manage dams so they are less harmful to the ecosystem and downstream populations, as well as about alternative ways of meeting water and energy needs. With Gibe III, it does not seem that this new understanding has been taken into account. In the United States, we are actually taking some dams down because their costs now outweigh their benefits. And the United States, too, appropriated lands and waters from native tribal populations, and we are now trying to go back and to some degree fix this wrong.

  20. Camille
    December 3, 2015, 5:54 am

    Article based on “anonymous, trusted source”…Of course.