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Dams and Plantations Upend Livelihoods in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo River Valley

May 16, 2023

by John Cannon, Kaleab Girma on 16 May 2023

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The peoples of the Lower Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia have never had an easy task in ensuring their own survival. Hot and dry, with temperamental rainfall, the region demands ingenuity and flexibility from its inhabitants. At least 200,000 people from the Bacha, Bodi, Dasanech, Hamar, Kara, Kwegu, Murle, Mursi and Nyangatom ethnic groups call this region home.

Over the centuries, these varied peoples have developed ways of life often generalized as “agropastoralist,” a term that acknowledges the centrality of both farming and herding to their existence. In practice, each has honed “quite sophisticated and diverse ways of making a living from patchy environments and unpredictable rains and flood-prone rivers,” Edward Stevenson, an assistant professor and anthropologist at the U.K.’s Durham University, said in an interview.

But recent changes to their homelands mean that many of those strategies are no longer reliable.

“Unfortunately, this way of life has vanished,” Desalegn Tekle Loyale, a Nyangatom community leader, told Mongabay. Researchers, human rights advocates, and residents like Desalegn say government projects aimed at “economic development” are laying waste to these unique ways of life and have touched off recurrent famine in the region.

The linchpin of these initiatives was the massive Gilgel Gibe III Dam built on a stretch of the Omo River above the valley. The goal was to produce electricity for use domestically and abroad, stoking Ethiopia’s rapidly growing economy in the process.

Proponents of the dam said it would also control enough of the Omo’s fickle flow for an ambitious irrigation scheme. (The Gibe III is the third dam to bottle up the flow of the Omo, and several others are planned.) Turning seemingly marginal drylands into hectare upon hectare of lucrative cash crops like sugarcane would bring jobs and more predictable sources of water for the peoples of the Lower Omo, according to the vision.

Reports suggest that few of those benefits have materialized, however, and the irreversible impacts of the project have strangled both the Omo’s seasonal floods and herders’ access to rainfed grazing land.

For its part, the government has also been largely silent on these alleged impacts. Two years of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, only recently ended by a ceasefire signed in November 2022, diverted attention and resources away from the layers of crises in the Lower Omo. Those familiar with the situation say malnutrition, starvation and inadequate access to health care have led to deaths in many communities.

“There was no aid, no support, and no relief. The community was forced to exchange their cattle for corn from other regions just to survive,” Desalegn said. “Unfortunately, this is still happening to this day.”

An escalating humanitarian crisis

The specter of hunger has always lingered at the margins of daily life in the Lower Omo, often as a result of cattle disease or conflict, Stevenson said. But the frequency has surged since the construction of the dam and the installation of the Kuraz sugar plantations.

Mursi, Bodi and Kwegu communities have been particularly hard-hit, especially young children and the elderly, according to a report released in February by the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank.

“They’re just miserably hungry at the moment,” said a longtime researcher in the region who asked to remain anonymous so he could continue to work in Ethiopia.

By some accounts, forcing such a seismic shift in livelihoods may have been a driving force for these projects. […]

‘The mere cost of development’

In 2016, after a decade of construction, crews put the finishing touches on the 250-meter (820-foot) Gilgel Gibe III Dam upriver from the valley. Holding back the water also meant that controlled irrigation flows could deliver water to the vast plantations of what would become the Kuraz Sugar Development Project planned for the valley below. The dam’s touted potential to jump-start an economic engine for Africa’s second-most populous country seemed close at hand.

But as the dam’s whirring turbines began shuttling electricity to Addis Ababa, the growing capital, and beyond, and shunting flows into irrigation canals, the age-old natural cycles of the Omo ceased, irreversibly changing the lives of the people in the Lower Omo Valley.

Speaking on the occasion of Ethiopia’s annual Pastoralist Day as the dam was being constructed in 2011, then-prime minister Meles Zenawi Asres said of Ethiopia, “Even though poverty and backwardness is a concern for the whole country, it is worse for the pastoralists.”

The anonymous researcher said the government has long seen these groups as “a big embarrassment.”

“You had these people who didn’t obey the state, they didn’t pay taxes, they didn’t do anything that the government wanted them to do,” he added.

Adane Kebede Gebeyehu, an anthropologist based at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, wrote that such sentiments have been reinforced by “biased policy measures” depicting groups like the agropastoralists of the Lower Omo “as ‘backward’, ‘non-productive’, and ‘vulnerable’ and in need to be developed and transformed for the ‘better’.” The focus was not on preserving the unique cultures that have developed over centuries in the Lower Omo.

These biases have guided Ethiopia’s planning for decades, as the government tried to capitalize on the country’s natural resources — in this case, the energy-producing flow of water from the highlands and vast tracts of seemingly unused land. Architects of the country’s economic development argued that the dam and the Kuraz sugar plantations and factories would also provide jobs for local people and spur the provision of better roads, schools and health clinics.

“The Government has its own way of preserving the indigenous cultures of the communit[ies] all over the country,” Reta Demeke, communications head for the government’s Ethiopian Sugar Industry Group, said in an email to Mongabay. “The economic gain[s] will also benefit the communities around changing their backward way of life.”

Reta also said the food insecurity plaguing the region’s communities was the result of drought, not the impacts of the sugar plantations.

Critics of the government’s plans argue that practices such as gobbling up land formerly used periodically for farming and grazing, and requiring people to settle permanently in one place through a process known as “villagization,” forced substantial cultural changes on these communities. They also contend that the groups were largely unaware of how the dam and the plantations would alter their ways of life.

But Reta said the government’s first move, prior to the construction of the dam and establishment of the sugar plantations, was to obtain consent from the communities. He also said that the 100,000 hectares (roughly 247,000 acres) now designated for the plantation, revised down from published estimates as high as 245,000 hectares (about 605,000 acres), is “so small compared to the rest of the area, [that] scarcity of grazing land could not be a problem.”

When it comes to the loss of agricultural land, Reta said, “[F]arming is rarely practiced” by the great majority of peoples living in the Lower Omo (a contention that anthropologists dispute). He also described the region as “a vast unoccupied area” and said that because the communities had never settled down, “no land was taken from them for they live wandering from place to place.”

Putting down roots in just one place, so the thinking goes, would give them access to stable education and health care. And the government said they would be given irrigated land to farm more intensively, as well as the chance to grow sugarcane for cash income.

But many of those benefits remain unmet promises, Desalegn said. Making matters worse, the long-term drought Reta referred to has exacerbated the loss of land and flood-recession agriculture experienced by the people of the Lower Omo. Not only can communities no longer rely upon seasonal floodplains, the rangeland available to them has been cut dramatically by the incursion of the sugarcane plantations.

“With both the rain and the flood gone, this has become a serious problem,” Desalegn said.

Such a serious problem, in fact, that “chronic hunger” has become the norm, the anonymous researcher said. It’s led to desperate measures, like clearing some of the gallery forests that fringe the Omo River in an attempt to find “cool,” cultivable land. The researcher said these efforts have been “a complete failure,” leaving only ruined forests in their wake.

Now, these groups are increasingly dependent food aid delivered mostly by outside groups. The Oakland Institute has called for international action to end the ongoing famine and help these groups once again become self-sufficient.

“It is a question relevant for all societies: How are the Indigenous looked at?” Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, said in an interview. “In the larger wheels of development, which does not result in environmental protections or cultural protections … they’re seen as a mere cost to pay for development.”

Little if any of those projected economic benefits have reached the long-time residents of the Lower Omo Valley, she added.

“How can you call it development when it devastates lives and livelihoods of locals?” Mittal said. […]