There is growing international concern for the future of the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia. A beautiful, biologically diverse land with volcanic outcrops and a pristine riverine forest; it is also a UNESCO world heritage site, yielding significant archaeological finds, including human remains dating back 2.4 million years.
The Valley is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world, with around 200,000 indigenous people living there. Yet, in blind attempts to modernise and develop what the government sees as an area of 'backward' farmers in need of modernisation, some of Ethiopia's most valuable landscapes, resources and communities are being destroyed.
One year after completion of the Giber III dam, effects are already being felt: the annual floods (necessary for flood-recession agriculture and fish breeding cycles) have stopped. Land has been taken from local people and national parks, inhabitants of the land have been forcibly resettled, and food insecurity and extreme hunger has begun to set in. This is just the start of troubles to come.
The Omo River provides Kenya’s Lake Turkana with 90% of its water. It is predicted that abstraction of water for the plantations could cause the lake level to fall by up to 22m. Fish numbers will dwindle and the lake’s water will be completely undrinkable. These events will exacerbate resource conflicts among the local communities Ethiopia's 'villagisation' programme is aiding the land-grab by pushing tribes into purpose built villages where they can no longer access their lands, becoming unable to sustain themselves, making these previously self-sufficient tribes dependent on government food aid. What is happening in the lower Omo Valley, and elsewhere, shows a complete disregard for human rights and a total failure to understand the value these tribes offer Ethiopia in terms of their cultural heritage and their contribution to food security.
There are eight tribes living in the Valley, including the Mursi, famous for wearing large plates in their lower lips. Their agricultural practices have been developed over generations to cope with Ethiopia's famously dry climate. Many are herders who keep cattle, sheep and goats and live nomadically. Others practice small-scale shifting cultivation, whilst many depend on the fertile crop and pasture land created by seasonal flooding. The vital life source of the Omo River is being cut off by Gibe III. An Italian construction company began work in 2006, violating Ethiopian law as there was no competitive bidding for the contract and no meaningful consultation with indigenous people.
The dam has received investment from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the hydropower is primarily going for export rather than domestic use - despite the fact that 77% of Ethiopia's population lacks access to electricity.
People in the Omo Valley are politically vulnerable and geographically remote. Many do not speak Amharic, the national language, and have no access to resources or information.
There has been little consideration of potential impacts, including those which may affect other countries, particularly Kenya, as Lake Turkana relies heavily on the Omo River.