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Dam in Ethiopia has wiped out indigenous livelihoods, report finds

  • 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.”

Cattle gathering in the Kortcho village of the Kara group. Image © Kelly Fogel.

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.

A Mursi woman, Mago National Park. Image © Kelly Fogel.

“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.”

A Kara mother and child sitting along the banks of the Omo River in Kortcho village. There is a sugar factory off to the right side of the photo. Image © Kelly Fogel.

Since taking office in April 2018, the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has led an overhaul of the government’s approach to indigenous communities, Mittal said. Thousands of political prisoners, indigenous activists and leaders among them, have been freed. But those changes have yet to trickle down.

“We would like to believe in a new Ethiopia. Yes, there is a new prime minister with a reform agenda, but what has been forgotten is what’s always forgotten, which is the indigenous, the devastation of the cultural lifestyle and the livelihoods,” Mittal said.

“Our concern is that there’ll be more privatization, more private actors, more sugar factories,” she said, “and the impact will be felt by those on the peripheries of the nation-state — the indigenous.”

Mittal and her colleagues were encouraged when a member of the administration contacted them in December 2018 to seek their advice on crafting a framework for “all-inclusive development and human rights” in Ethiopia. But a letter sharing the Oakland Institute’s research from the Lower Omo region with Fitsum Arega, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, has thus far gone unanswered. In it, they highlighted the effects of the Gibe III dam that have rippled through the indigenous communities, and they raised concerns about the new government’s focus on increasing industrial agriculture investment.

The report examines the Kuraz Sugar Development Project in the Lower Omo region in detail. It was originally slated for some 2,450 square kilometers (946 square miles), but the Oakland Institute found that many communities were forced from their land, and much of the area’s forest was cut down to make way for the cash crop.

“What is really happening is the takeover of the resources from communities who have been the stewards of those resources. Those resources are still there because they’ve been protected by those communities,” Mittal said. “Just think of the environmental fragility of the area. What people don’t understand is that agro-pastoralism is the best way to maintain the environmental fragility, to maintain that before it is completely decimated.”

Two Kara women in Kortcho village standing by the river. Image © Kelly Fogel.

The jobs promised to the community have turned out to be “mostly seasonal, temporary, and low paid,” according to the report. Mittal and her colleagues say they’re concerned that, with plans for more dams and industrial agriculture, Ethiopia’s push for development will continue to exclude the indigenous.

“They have been sacrificed at the altar of development,” Mittal said, and without changes to the way the development occurs, these communities will likely face further suffering.

Members of a Mursi community explained how the dam had changed their way of life. At first, the irrigation canals constructed allowed the Mursi to continue to farm.

“They took the Omo River waters and channeled them,” the community members told the Oakland Institute’s researchers. “They then divided out cultivation sites for the Mursi and poured water on the land. The corn ripened. ‘This is very good,’ we said.”

But soon, according to the report, the communities’ needs were cast aside to make room for the large sugarcane project. “When we wanted to plant again they bulldozed the crops,” they said, and they were told that the land’s owner — the government — would be responsible for cultivation.

To the people who had seen their livelihoods evaporate with the disappearance of the naturally flowing Omo, it seemed to be just a ruse, they said. “That’s how they tricked us.”

Banner image of a Kara mother and child © Kelly Fogel

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Benneh, G. (1972). Systems of agriculture in tropical Africa. Economic Geography48(3), 244-257. doi:10.2307/142906

Turton, D. (1985). Mursi response to drought: some lessons for relief and rehabilitation. African Affairs84(336), 331-346.

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