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.

A new dam, called Gibe III, on the Omo River is nearing completion and will begin operation in June, 2015, potentially devastating the lives of half a million people. Along with the dam, extensive land grabbing is forcing thousands from their ancestral homes and destroying ecosystems. 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, and 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 dam

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, with the hydropower 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. Foreign journalists have been denied contact with the tribes, as BBC reporter Matthew Newsome recently discovered when he was prevented from speaking to the Mursi people. 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.

Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana, known as ‘the Cradle of Mankind’, is the world’s largest desert lake dating back more than 4 million years. 90% of its inflow comes from the Omo. Filling of the lake behind the dam will take 3 years and use up to a years’ worth of inflow that would otherwise go into Lake Turkana. Irrigation projects linked with the dam will then reduce the inflow by 50% and lead to a drop of up to 20 metres in the lake’s depth. These projects may also pollute the water with chemicals and nitrogen run-off. Dr Sean Avery’s report explains how this could devastate the lake’s ancient ecosystems and affect the 300,000 people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Tribal communities living around the lake rely on it for fish, as well as an emergency source of water. It also attracts other wildlife which some tribes hunt for food, such as the El Molo, who hunt hippo and crocodile. Turkana is home to at least 60 fish species, which have evolved to be perfectly adapted to the lake’s environment. Breeding activity is highest when the Omo floods, and this seasonal flood also stimulates the migration of spawning fish. Flooding is vital for diluting the salinity of the lake, making it habitable. Livestock around the lake add nutrients to the soil encouraging shoreline vegetation, and this is important for protecting young fish during the floods. Lake Turkana is a fragile ecosystem, highly dependent on regular seasonal activity, particularly from the Omo. To alter this ancient ebb and flow will throw the environment out of balance and impact all life which relies on the lake.

Severely restricted resources around the lake may also lead to violence amongst those competing for what’s left. Low water levels could see the lake split in two, similar to the Aral Sea. Having acted as a natural boundary between people, there is concern that conflict will be inevitable. Fear is already spreading amongst the tribes who say they are afraid of those who live on the other side of the lake. One woman said, “They will come and kill us and that will bring about enmity among us as we turn on each other due to hunger.” Conflict may also come from Ethiopians moving into Kenyan territory in attempts to find new land and resources.

Land grabbing

The dam is part of a wider attempt to develop the Omo Valley resulting in land grabs and plantations depending on large-scale irrigation. Since 2008 an area the size of France has been given to foreign companies, and there are plans to hand over twice this area of land over the next few years.

Investors can grow what they want and sell where they want. The main crops being brought into cultivation include, sugar, cotton, maize, palm oil and biofuels. These have no benefit to local economies, and rather than using Ethiopia’s fragile fertile lands to support its own people, the crops grown here are exported for foreign markets. Despite claims that plantations will bring jobs, most of the workers are migrants. Where local people (including children) are employed, they are paid extremely poorly. 750km of internal roads are also being constructed to serve the plantations, and are carving up the landscape, causing further evictions. In order to prepare the land for plantations, all trees and grassland are cleared, destroying valuable ecosystems and natural resources.

Reports claim the military have been regularly intimidating villages, stealing and killing cattle and destroying grain stores. There have also been reports of beatings, rape and even deaths, whilst those who oppose the developments are put in jail. The Bodi, Kwegi and Mursi people were evicted to make way for the Kuraz Sugar Project which covers 245,000 acres. The Suri have also been forcibly removed to make way for the Koka palm oil plantation, run by a Malaysian company and covering 76,600 acres. This is also happening elsewhere in Ethiopia, particularly the Gambela region where 73% of the indigenous population are destined for resettlement. Al-Moudi, a Saudi tycoon, has 10,000 acres in this region to grow rice, which is exported to the Middle East. A recent report from the World Bank’s internal watchdog has accused a UK and World Bank funded development programme of contributing to this violent resettlement.

For many tribes in the Omo Valley, the loss of their land means the loss of their culture. Cattle herding is not just a source of income, it defines people’s lives. There is great cultural value placed on the animals. The Bodi are known to sing poems to their favourite cattle; and there are many rituals involving the livestock, such as the Hamer tribe’s coming of age ceremony whereby young men must jump across a line of 10 to 30 bulls. Losing their land also means losing the ability to sustain themselves. As Ulijarholi, a member of the Mursi tribe, said, “If our land is taken, it is like taking our lives.” They will no longer be independent but must rely on government food aid or try to grow food from tiny areas of land with severely reduced resources.

Ethiopia’s food security

Ethiopia is currently experiencing economic growth, yet 30 million people still face chronic food shortages. Some 10% of Ethiopia’s national budget is foreign aid, but instead of taking a grass-roots approach to securing a self-sufficient food supply for its people, it is being pushed aggressively towards industrial development and intensive production for foreign markets.

There is a failure to recognise what these indigenous small-scale farmers and pastoralists offer to Ethiopia’s food security. Survival of the Fittest, a report by Oxfam, argued that pastoralism is one of the best ways to combat climate change because of its flexibility. During droughts animals can be slaughtered and resources focused on a core breeding stock in order to survive. This provides insurance against crop failure as livestock can be exchanged for grain or sold, but when crops fail there can be nothing left. Tribal people can also live off the meat and milk of their animals.

Those who have long cultivated the land in the Omo Valley are essential to the region’s food security, producing sorghum, maize and beans on the flood plains. This requires long experience of the local climate and the river’s seasonal behaviour, as well as knowledge of which crops grow well under diverse and challenging conditions.

Support for smallholders and pastoralists could improve their efficiency and access to local markets. This would be a sustainable system which preserved soil fertility and the local ecosystem through small-scale mixed rotation cropping, appropriate use of scarce resources (by growing crops which don’t need lots of water, for example) and use of livestock for fertility-building, as well as for producing food on less productive lands. Instead, over a billion dollars is being spent on hydro-electric power and irrigation projects. This will ultimately prove unsustainable, since large-scale crop irrigation in dry regions causes water depletion and salinisation of the soil, turning the land unproductive within a couple of generations. Short of an international outcry however, the traditional agricultural practices of the indigenous people will be long gone by the time the disastrous consequences becomes apparent.

Correction: ‘Two changes have been made to this article since it was published at the request of the World Bank, which challenged the accuracy of the sources we relied upon. 

In the 4th paragraph of this article it originally stated that ‘The dam has received investment from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the World Bank’. We have removed reference to funding from the World Bank because we have been informed by them that, ‘The Ethiopian government in 2008/09 invited WB [World Bank] AfDB and EIB, together with Italian bilateral cooperation, to consider financial support to Gibe III. When the World Bank described how its development financing would be subject to its strict safeguard policies, the government turned to Chinese financing instead.’
In the first paragraph of the section on ‘Ethiopian food security’ we have corrected the passage which read, ‘Some 90% of Ethiopia’s national budget is foreign aid, to read, ‘Some 10% of Ethiopia’s national budget is foreign aid.’ The World Bank has advised us that ‘The correct number is actually 10% according to the International Monetary Fund.’
The World Bank has provided funding for the power lines which will be used to export electricity from the hydroelectric power plant. However, the bank tells us that this was not directly related to the construction of the dam. They say, ‘Together with other financiers like the African Development Bank we are supporting the building of a regional power connector from the Ethiopian power grid to the Kenyan grid and vice versa in time. Think of a connector as an electricity highway linking the power grids in the two neighbouring countries. So the line does not link to individual power stations let alone Gibe 3 which has not yet been built.’

Photographs: Rod Waddington, Dietmar Temps

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  • Sera Bezu

    So you feel these people should stay the same way so people like can o gawk at them? You would risk a long dry season in the coming years when everyone of these ETHIOPIANS would be at risk of losing their life again? So “these ETHIOPIANS” will beg and You can sing a song collect millions, and open your arms to them? Or worse some lunatic from your part of the world … No I cannot imagine the possibilities… Please attend to your own problems and leave these ETHIOPIANS alone.

  • theodros

    The biggest land grab in recorded history was by your ancestors, inthe land of USA. Your ancestors made the red indians almost extinct, and comitted barbaric crimes against them. The land you call now the land of the free was theirs. So please shut up and mind your own buisness. We would like Ethiopians to to modernize too.

  • SustainableFoodTrust

    Although I was not the author of the article, Megan Perry worked closely with me and did consult me whilst she was researching this piece, as I had the privilege of participating in a gathering of 26 tribes of nomadic pasturalists in January 2013 at Kalacha in Northern Kenya, several of whom came from the Omo River catchment area.

    What impressed me most about these people was their amazing vigour and vitality and their consternation at the prospect of being thrown off their tribal land caused directly by the construction of the damming of the Omo River.

    One of the young men that I met at this gathering was called Robba whose northern Ethiopian tribe is one of those affected by the aforementioned dam and he explained to me how the impact of the reduction in the grazing areas was resulting in forced overgrazing, thus destabilising what was previously an excellent example of ecosystem management on a landscape scale.

    Patrick Holden