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"Development" Projects Yield Starvation and Death in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley

February 8, 2023
Sugar plantations next to the Omo River

Sugar plantations next to the Omo River. Credit: The Oakland Institute


February 8, 2023; 6:00 AM PST

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  • New field research reveals a severe humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. Local Indigenous tribes face disease and acute hunger, resulting in starvation deaths.

  • The cost of the Gibe III Dam and sugarcane plantations — a part of Ethiopia’s ambition to “develop” the region — is being paid by the most vulnerable.

  • Ethiopian government and relief agencies must urgently respond to the need for food, water, and medical assistance.

  • Addressing the devastating impact of past “development” projects on Indigenous communities requires a radically different approach based on the respect and protection of Indigenous rights.

“Please if help doesn’t come, our people will disappear from the valley.”

Oakland, CA — In a new report, Dam and Sugar Plantations Yield Starvation and Death in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, the Oakland Institute sounds the alarm on the severe humanitarian crisis faced by Indigenous tribes in the Valley and urges government and aid agencies to provide relief assistance.

With attention centered on the civil war in the country over the last two years, the hunger and health crisis in the Omo Valley caused by the Gibe III Dam and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project has gone ignored.

For years, the Oakland Institute has alerted on the threats posed to the local population — with their traditional livelihoods, environment, and lands destroyed by the so-called “development” projects. New field research now confirms the disastrous impacts as the situation rapidly deteriorates with Indigenous children dying of disease and starvation.

“The very survival of the Kwegu, Mursi, Bodi and other tribes is under threat. Acute hunger is common with the dam's blockage of the annual flood — a natural event that the inhabitants of the valley relied on for centuries for cultivation — compounded with their loss of land to the sugar plantations,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute. Malnourished villagers are also suffering from deadly diseases — chickenpox and measles outbreaks, malaria, and leishmania. Contamination of the Omo River and its tributaries has led to a resurgence of cholera and polluted drinking water with chemicals, worsening the health crisis. The cattle, wild game, and fish that communities traditionally relied on for subsistence have disappeared. The economic opportunities the projects were supposed to generate have not materialized — exacerbating poverty in the region.

Given this dire situation, it is imperative for the Ethiopian government and humanitarian agencies to immediately turn their attention to the Omo Valley and provide urgent food, water, and medical assistance. “The Indigenous communities of Lower Omo—many forcibly evicted under the previous regime to make way for the construction of the Gibe III Dam and sugarcane plantations— today face starvation and death. Beyond immediate relief, addressing past abuses is essential. After years of broken promises and widespread abuse, any future development in the Lower Omo will have to be based on respect and protection of Indigenous rights,” concluded Mittal.