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How Africa’s Gibe III Dam is Ravaging Ethiopia’s Indigenous Population

July 2, 2019
NS Energy

Despite boosting the country's energy output by 85%, Ethiopia's Gibe III dam has left an indelibly negative mark on the thousands of indigenous people living along the Omo River

Set against the monolithic backdrop of Africa’s largest dam, Gibe III, the myriad indigenous populations of Ethiopia have been saddled with an austere ultimatum over the past decade: “Abandon your way of life and stay in your homeland, or keep it and leave.”

Sold by the country’s government and Italian construction firm Salini Impregilo on its ostensible potential to provide a boon for any and all in the Lower Omo Valley, the dam has proven far more discriminate in apportioning its benefits.

Robbing local groups like the Mursi and Kwegu of the water flow critical to their aquatic form of agriculture, its actual purpose has been revealed through empirical evidence as the facilitation of large-scale, irrigation-reliant sugarcane plantations downstream.

The Kuraz Sugar Development Project (KSDP), too, came with a promise that it would enrich the lives of its neighbours with an abundance of jobs which has also long since been broken, as the vast majority of work has gone to workers from other regions.

“Over the past year, the country, now led by Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, has gone through tremendous changes starting with the release of thousands of political prisoners, including Indigenous leaders and activists,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute—a US-based think tank whose recent report details the Gibe III and KSDP sagas.

“Change, however, has not reached the Bodi, Mursi and Kwegu communities of Lower Omo—many of whom were forcibly evicted under the previous regime to make way for the construction of the Gibe III Dam and sugarcane plantations—and today face loss of livelihoods, starvation, and violent conflict.”


What is the Gibe III dam?

In 1996, plans for Gibe III were drawn up as part of the African Development Bank’s Omo-Gibe Masterplan—a comprehensive framework for the management of land and water along Southern Ethiopia’s Omo river.

Construction on the facility did not begin until a decade later and was not finished until early 2015, which marked the filling of the river’s reservoir and the end of its annual flood, destabilising a core pillar of the indigenous economy.

For the country’s government, though, the project has been a remarkable success.

The Gibe III dam (Credit: Salini Impregilo)

The dam provides strident energy production to the tune of 6,500GWh a year, in addition to enabling the efficient operation of sugar plantations downstream, whose vulnerable irrigation infrastructure is now safeguarded from floods.

Making clear his vision for what Gibe III would mean for Ethiopia, then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said a 2011 announcement: “In the coming five years there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone.

“I promise you that, even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”

Work on the KSDP began shortly after Mr Zenawi’s statement, when Metals and Engineering Corporation (MetEC), a construction firm run by the military, was contracted to build Omo Kuraz I, the first in the project’s extensive portfolio.