It rises in Ethiopia’s Shewa Highlands, and flows for 760 kms through terraced hillsides, volcanic outcrops and fertile grasslands as far as the world’s greatest desert lake, Lake Turkana, in Kenya.
The lower valley of the Omo River is believed by some historians to have been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years, where a vast diversity of migrating peoples have converged. Today, at least eight different tribes speaking six different languages (the Bodi (Me’en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom) live along the lower reaches of the river. Many are a blend of nomadic herdsmen and shifting agriculturalists. They travel the area in search of water and grazing lands for their cattle, goats and sheep. They also depend on the river for their livelihood, having developed ecological practices that are intricately adapted to the semi-arid climate and the flooding cycles of the river.
Every year the Omo swells, reaching its maximum level in August or September, when it overflows, depositing a fertile silt on its riverbanks as it retreats. This nourishes crops such as sorghum, corn and maize planted on the flood plains. Then the mighty river retreats, and the cyclical process begins again. ‘The annual flood is the life-blood of the local population.’ said Dr. David Turton, of Oxford University’s African Studies Centre.
Now, however, the life-giving river is threatened by government-sanctioned development schemes.
In July 2006, Ethiopia signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build Gibe III, the biggest hydroelectric dam in sub-saharan Africa (dams I and II have already been built). This dam will block the southwestern part of the river, so ending the Omo’s natural flood cycle and jeopardizing the tribes’ sophisticated flood-retreat cultivation methods. Tribes such as the Kwegu who rely on hunting, gathering and agriculture will be pushed to the brink by the inevitable reduction in fish stocks. ‘All but two tribes combine agriculture with pastoralism, and none could survive without ‘flood- retreat’ or ‘recession’ agriculture,’ said Dr. Turton. This fear is echoed by a Kwegu man. ‘We depend on the fish,’ he said. ‘They are like our cattle. We eat from the Omo River’.
In addition to the construction of Gibe III, Survival International recently discovered that vast tracts of fertile farmland in the Omo Valley are being leased to foreign companies to grow and export food, as well as being cleared for vast state-run plantations to produce export crops and crops for the Ethiopian market, notably sugar-cane. Tribes such as the Suri, Mursi, Bodi and Kwegu are being violently evicted from their villages.
This week, Survival International also revealed that three independent reports have warned that the controversial Gibe III dam, and land grabs for plantations, risk imminent ‘catastrophe’ in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley.
- Humanitarian Catastrophe and Regional Armed Conflict Brewing in the Transborder Region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan published by the Africa Resources Working Group concludes that 200,000 tribal people in Ethiopia and 300,000 in Kenya will suffer irreversible impacts from the dam and plantations.
- The Downstream Impacts of Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam – East Africa’s Aral Sea in the Making? published by International Rivers warns that the hydrological changes from the dam and associated irrigation for the plantations, which will use fertilizers, may lead to dead zones in the Omo River.
‘The world needs to be aware of the decision to violently strip the Lower Omo Valley tribes of their self-sustaining way of life,’ says Stephen Corry of Survival International. ‘These peoples have used their land to cultivate crops and graze cattle to feed their families for generations. This basic right has now been taken from them, in a brutal manner, leaving them hungry and afraid.’
‘There is no singing and dancing along the Omo River now,’ said a Mursi man. ‘The people are too hungry. The kids are quiet. If the Omo floods are gone, we will die.’