The Omo river rises in Ethiopia’s Shewa Highlands, and flows for 760 kms through terraced hillsides, volcanic outcrops and fertile grasslands as far as the world’s greatest desert lake, Lake Turkana, in Kenya.
The lower valley of the Omo River is believed by some historians to have been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years, where a vast diversity of migrating peoples have converged. Today, 8 different tribes speaking 6 different languages live along the river: the Bodi (Me’en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom. Many are nomadic herdsmen, who travel the area in search of water and grazing lands for their cattle, goats and sheep. They also depend on the river for their livelihood, having developed ecological practices that are intricately adapted to the semi-arid climate and the flooding cycles of the river.
Every year, after the ‘big rains’ fall in March, the Omo swells, reaching its maximum level in August or September, when it overflows, depositing a fertile silt on its riverbanks. This nourishes crops such as sorghum, corn and maize planted on the flood plains, and replenishes the grasslands used by cattle. Then the mighty river retreats, and the cyclical process starts over. ‘The annual flood is the life-blood of the local population.’ said Dr. David Turton, of Oxford University’s African Studies Centre.
Yet today the life-giving river is threatened by government-sanctioned development schemes. In July 2006, Ethiopia signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build Gibe III, the biggest hydroelectric dam in sub-saharan Africa (dams I and II have already been built). The dam will block the south-western part of the river, so ending the Omo’s natural flood cycle and jeopardizing the tribes’ sophisticated flood retreat cultivation methods. Tribes such as the hunter-gatherer Kwegu will be pushed to the brink by the inevitable reduction in fish stocks. ‘All but two tribes combine agriculture with pastoralism, and none could survive without ‘flood- retreat’ or ‘recession’ agriculture’, said Dr. Turton, a thought echoed by a Kwegu man. ‘We depend on the fish,’ he said. ‘They are like our cattle. We eat from the Omo River’.
The following year, Ethiopia did not object to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that confirmed, ‘States shall consult and co-operate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned to obtain their free and informed consent to the approval of any project affecting their lands or other resources’. Yet in the intervening years, not only have most of the 90,000 tribal people who will be affected by Gibe III not been consulted about the 240 metre dam, most are entirely unaware of it. In addition to the construction of Gibe III, Survival International recently discovered that vast tracts of fertile farmland in the Omo Valley are being leased to foreign companies to grow and export food, as well as being cleared for vast staterun plantations to produce export crops, notably sugar-cane.
Earlier this year, Survival announced that three independent reports have warned that the dam, and the land grabs, risk imminent ‘catastrophe’ in the Lower Omo Valley. A report published by the Africa Studies Centre at Oxford University predicts the Ethiopian government’s Kuraz Sugar Project alone will cause Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, to drop by up to 22 meters. Much of the lake’s aquatic life will be destroyed, including fish stocks vital to the Turkana and other peoples living by the lake. Bodi, Kwegu and Mursi tribes people are now being forcibly evicted for the Kuraz project and moved into resettlement areas.
A report published by the Africa Resources Working Group concludes that 200,000 tribal people in Ethiopia and 300,000 in Kenya will suffer irreversible impacts from the dam and plantations. It warns that because the dam will cause the elimination of the Omo River’s natural flood, the river’s flow will be reduced by 60-70%, and the livelihoods of the tribes who live along its banks and in its plains will be devastated. It predicts ‘major inter-ethnic conflict’. A further report published by International Rivers warns that the hydrological changes from the dam and associated irrigation for the plantations, which will use fertilizers, may lead to dead zones in the Omo River.
‘The government sees the Omo Valley tribes as ‘backward’ and wants to ‘modernise’ them’, said Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International. ‘But the consequences of these developments are likely to be far from beneficial. If the government dams the lower Omo Valley and continues to sell tribal lands to outsiders, the region’s peoples may not even survive.’
‘The world needs to be aware of Ethiopia’s decision to violently strip Lower Omo Valley tribes of their self-sustaining way of life,’ he continued, ‘These peoples have used their land to cultivate crops and graze cattle to feed their families for generations. This basic right has now been taken from them, in a brutal manner, leaving them hungry and afraid.’ ‘There is no singing and dancing along the Omo River now, said a Mursi man, ‘The people are too hungry. The kids are quiet. If the Omo floods are gone, we will die.