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Dam in Ethiopia has wiped out indigenous livelihoods, report finds

June 11, 2019

by John C. Cannon

  • A dam in southern Ethiopia built to supply electricity to cities and control the flow of water for irrigating industrial agriculture has led to the displacement and loss of livelihoods of indigenous groups, the Oakland Institute has found.

  • On June 10, the policy think tank published a report of its research, demonstrating that the effects of the Gibe III dam on the Lower Omo River continue to ripple through communities, forcing them onto sedentary farms and leading to hunger, conflict and human rights abuses.

  • The Oakland Institute applauds the stated desire of the new government, which came to power in April 2018, to look out for indigenous rights.

  • But the report’s authors caution that continued development aimed at increasing economic productivity and attracting international investors could further marginalize indigenous communities in Ethiopia.

Scientists call it flood-retreat agriculture. As a swollen river blankets a dry plain and then recedes, it replenishes the thin soil with enough nutrients to sprout grass for cattle and allow the cultivation of crops like corn and sorghum. It’s an approach that indigenous groups have been practicing for centuries around the world, allowing them to subsist in arid and otherwise marginal climates.

These methods had long been part of the culture for several such groups living in the Omo River Valley in southern Ethiopia. But the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam, beginning in 2006, has seemingly ended that way of life. The dam now shunts electricity to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, as well as to Kenya to the south and controls the river’s flow to irrigate sprawling fields of sugarcane.

For the indigenous, a host of problems, including hunger, poverty, conflict and human rights abuses, have filled the void, says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank.

“The floods of the River Omo have ended,” Mittal told Mongabay. “There’s such grief and pain.”

With the backing of the Ethiopian government, the winds of economic development have cast a cloud over three indigenous groups in particular living in the Lower Omo Valley. The Bodi, the Mursi and the Northern Kwegu have, along with others, been marginalized as Africa’s second-most populous country has tried to increase its economic output, according to a report published June 10 by the Oakland Institute. And though a new administration elected in 2018 has affirmed its concern for the rights of minority and indigenous groups, Mittal said past wrongs have yet to be rectified. Further still, current plans for future investments will continue to threaten these peoples without seismic changes to the country’s economic development strategy.

The report, “How They Tricked Us: Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia,” draws on more than a decade of background research, as well as interviews with local people between 2017 and 2018, to understand the impacts of the dam and agricultural initiatives like the Kuraz Sugar Development Project.

Bibala, a member of the Mursi community, said that before the dam’s construction, “the land was full of grain.”

“We had a lot of flood water in the Omo River and we were very happy,” he told researchers. “Now the water is gone and we are all hungry. Later it will be death.”

A map of the Omo-Turkana Basin showing the planned extent of the Kuraz Sugar Development Project. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

The government had promised to periodically release water from the dam for controlled floods to simulate the natural expansion of the river on which all three groups depend for their crops and for the grasses that feed the cattle of the Bodi and Mursi and the goats of the Northern Kwegu. But the team’s research, corroborated by investigations by other organizations, revealed that controlled floods never materialized.

The solution, as seen by the authorities from the previous administration, was to get these semi-nomadic groups to move into permanent villages. Many members of the groups resisted, touching off a risky power struggle.

“The government told us before to move to the resettlement sites,” the Mursi told the Oakland Institute. “Both the Mursi and the Bodi hated the sites and they left them permanently. They don’t want to be in the resettlement sites. They asked the government to bring them grain. ‘What? You don’t like the resettlement sites? You don’t like going to school? You don’t get any grain,’ said the government. The government repeated that many times and now they left us without grain.”

This sort of “villagization” fit with the prior administration’s view on the need for economic progress, as well as the removal of impediments to it.

“In the coming five years there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone,” then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in 2011, referring to the Kuraz Sugar Development Project. The irrigation required for this project was only possible once the swelling and recession of the river were under control of the dam.

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

“The language says it all,” Mittal said. Elsewhere, leaders spoke of the need “to bring [indigenous] groups into the next century.”

But the evictions and the subsequent instability in the lives of these communities instigated resentment of the government and internal conflict as their once-expansive ranges were hewn down to just a quarter hectare, or 1 acre, per family in some cases.

“The problem is,” Mittal added, “you’re taking all of their resources. Nobody’s been brought into the next century, so there’s such a clash.”