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By Survival International:

Lower Omo boy. Courtesy Survival International

Violent land grabs in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley are displacing tribes and preventing them from cultivating their land, leaving thousands of people hungry and ‘waiting to die’.

As the world prepares to raise awareness of the issues behind poverty and hunger on October 16 (World Food Day), Ethiopia continues to jeopardize the food security and livelihoods of 200,000 of its self-sufficient tribal people.

Tribes such as the Suri, Mursi, Bodi and Kwegu are being violently evicted from their villages as Ethiopia’s government pursues its lucrative plantations project in the Valley.

Depriving tribes of their most valuable agricultural and grazing land, security forces are being used brutally to clear the area to make way for vast cotton, palm oil and sugar cane fields.

Cattle are being confiscated, food stores destroyed, and communities ordered to abandon their homes and move into designated resettlement areas.


manyattaA new study conducted by Dr Sean Avery and released by the African Study Centre reveals a much grimmer picture of the impact of the building of Gibe III Dam on the Omo River and associated large scale irrigation-dependent plantations in Ethiopia would have on the Lake Turkana and Lower Omo Basins. The report shows how Gibe's regulation of the flow of the Omo will alter the annual flood regime upon which the agro-pastoralists of the lower Omo depend for their livelihoods and how it will, coupled with the abstraction of Omo water for large-scale irrigation will alter the hydrological inflow patterns to Lake Turkana, directly impacting the ecology of the world's largest lake.

This is the second comprehensive study of the impact of Gibe on the hydrology of Lake Turkana and Lover Omo that the Nairobi-based consultant hydrologist and civil engineer, Dr Sean Avery, has conducted. Dr Avery previously carried out the only comprehensive assessment of the impact of the dam on Lake Turkana and Lower Omo - commissioned by the African Development Bank (AfDB) - but that was before the full scale of planned irrigation-dependent large scale plantation development was known. 

A few months after the AFDB report was submitted, the full extent of planned irrigation development in the lower Omo became clearer, with the announcement that the state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation would soon begin developing 150,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations. It became necessary to conduct a new study to consolidate the previous findings with the new information.

Dr Avery's new report is now available to download from the website of the University of Oxford's African Studies Centre. We have placed the links to the two volume report and an executive summary here. You can also read Dr Avery's first report in the Documents Downloads section of our website.

Download Documents


The River Omo and Lake Turkana Hydrology: Executive Summary and Introduction

The River Omo and Lake Turkana Hydrology: Volume I

The River Omo and Lake Turkana Hydrology: Volume II

Globally there has been an increase in concern over the environmental degradation and the need for greater environmental protection and management.

All ecosystems of the world are potentially affected by man’s activities, but wetlands are especially fragile and often neglected. Wetlands are neither well understood nor appreciated and have been increasingly under natural and human pressures in all parts of the globe and especially in Africa.

The GIBE III project is one of a series of damming projects that have been undertaken by the Ethiopian government. The Gibe III hydroelectric project on the Omo River is a public-private partnership planned as a 25year national energy master plan of Ethiopia. The planned increase in power generation, however far exceeds domestic needs with the surplus which is estimated at fifty percent being exported to the neighboring countries including Kenya which the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCo) predicts to export 500MW to.

The Omo River is a transboundary river that contributes at least 80 percent of the waters of Lake Turkana. Its terminus is at northern end of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and most of the Omo Delta is in Kenya. A sharp reduction in the Omo’s downstream flow volume would cause a significant retreat of Lake Turkana.

An assessment of the overall impact of the proposed Gibe III project on the Lake Turkana, in Kenya must begin with the direct impact of the reduced flow into the lake, since the Omo River is the major source of water for Lake Turkana. Reduction in flow volume from reservoir filling would be the primary impact.

Based on a combination of calculations from satellite imagery, and published flow data, it is reasonable to say that the effect of the flow on the Lake Turkana can be established. Therefore, concluding that over the first five years, there would be a loss of about 53.5km3 of water from the lake, corresponding to a drop of about 7 meters. This should be considered as a conservative estimate: an alternative estimate, based on other available data is 10meters.

Using bathymetric data for Lake Turkana, it is possible to predict that the Omo delta and the northern section of the lake will desiccate, and the shorelines would recede to almost the halfway point, southward along the lake. A salinity increase in the lake is likely to severely affect the aquatic salinity of the lake which is already barely portable. Concentrations of the ions in the lake will. The effect of this is increased concentration on fish populations and on the usefulness of the lake for watering livestock and for human consumption will need to be determined. In turn the region’s livelihood systems-particularly those of the Turkana, Dassanech, Rendille., Samburu and other groups in Kenya would be significantly impacted as they are dependant upon recession cultivation, lakeside livestock grazing and watering at the lake, and fishing.

The Omo Delta and northern shoreline area have long provided habitat for a unique abundance of hippopotamus and Nile crocodile, with extraordinary numbers of water birds. This entire area would be the first part of Lake Turkana to undergo major destruction of habitat and wildlife. Consequently, the unique floral and faunal systems of Lake Turkana would likely be threatened with major destruction. The lake is now internationally recognized, including as a World Heritage Site for its abundance of wildlife, as well as unique floral and fauna species-many of which are barely described or understood, from an ecological perspective.

Dam and irrigation projects could spark "bloody and persistent" conflict, suggests Peter Bosshard of International Rivers.

Photo by Alison M. Jones for
a tribal man from Ethiopia's Lower Omo River Basin. (Image by Alison M. Jones for has made great efforts to support poverty reduction in Africa, and likes to present itself as a friend of the African people. But loans for contentious dam and irrigation projects now threaten to pull China into an explosive regional conflict between well-armed groups in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The Lower Omo Valley in south-west Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya are marked by a harsh climate and unique, fragile ecosystems. They are home to 12 indigenous peoples, one of the largest remaining wildlife migrations, and some of the earliest remains of the human species.

The region is currently being transformed by one of Africa's biggest and most controversial infrastructure ventures. Once completed, the Gibe III hydropower project will dam the Omo River to generate electricity with a capacity of 1,870 megawatts. It will also allow the irrigation of 2,450 square kilometres of sugar plantations, which are currently being developed on indigenous lands and in national parks.

Scientific report documents looming environmental disaster

The dam and irrigation projects have been debated for many years. Reports commissioned and prepared by the African Development Bank, International Rivers, the World Heritage Committee and the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority have documented their impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo River and Lake Turkana, the 500,000 indigenous people who depend on them, and the unique cultural heritage of this cradle of humankind.

A new scientific study published by the NGO International Rivers explores the social and environmental impacts of the project in detail, and examines the knock-on effects of the impending ecological crisis on the security of the volatile border region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. The study confirms that Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, almost completely depends on the inflows from the Omo River, and that the lake's unique ecosystems and fisheries are closely linked to the river’s annual flood cycle.

The dam and sugar plantations will affect this ecosystem in several ways. The dam will interrupt the annual flood of the Omo River, which sustains the agriculture, grazing lands and fisheries of the region. The filling of the Gibe III reservoir will lower the water level of Lake Turkana by two metres. The sugar plantations will divert at least 28% of the Omo River’s annual flow, and lower the lake's water level by at least 13 metres. Read more...

Exactly two years ago to the month, I wrote a commentary entitled, "The Dam and the Damned: Gilgel Gibe III Ethiopia" focusing on the impact of "development" in the Omo River Basin (ORB) in southern Ethiopia. In that commentary, I echoed the deep concerns voiced by various international human rights and environmental organizations over the ecological impact and cost of that dam on the lives of indigenous populations.

I also made it a special point to express gratitude and appreciation to "the great international human rights organization that have created so much international awareness on the precarious environmental situation in the Omo River Basin." I am even more profoundly grateful to International Rivers, Human Rights Watch, the Oakland Institute, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group two years later for the extraordinary work they continue to do to save the environment and the indigenous people in the ORB. For years, these organizations have been in the forefront of the race to save Ethiopians damned by the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric dam.

The various international organizations have done invaluable work by raising public awareness and undertaking advocacy campaigns to bring international attention to the ecological disaster taking place in the ORB. Over the years, they have all issued meticulously prepared field reports, research and policy analyses and other scientific and statistical reports documenting the effect of the "development programs" of the regime in power in Ethiopia on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the ORB. They have all sought to advocate and mobilize international public opinion to bring sanity to the madness of Gibe III dam, the flagitious leasing of tribal lands in the Basin for sugar and rice plantations for the export sector and to stop the forced resettlement ("villagization") of indigenous communities.

In my 2012 commentary, I also publicly lamented the fact that Ethiopians, particularly those of us in the Diaspora, have been standing on the sidelines with arms folded as the various international human rights and environmental organizations groups were running a steep uphill race to save Ethiopians in the ORB. We have been silently watching them doing all of the heavy lifting for us. At the time, I pleaded with all Ethiopians to "join and help international human and environmental rights organizations help us, and engage in vigorous environmental activism of our own." I appealed for the "creation of our own environmental civil society organizations, particularly in the Diaspora, to ensure that Ethiopia's rich and diverse ecosystem is preserved and protected today and for future generations." I also warned, "If we fail to do that, we will all find ourselves in the same position as the people of the Omo River Basin who are damned by the dam."

It is painful for me (frankly, I am ashamed) to admit that two years after I wrote that commentary, we are still on the sidelines watching while the international human rights and environmental organizations are still doing all of the heavy lifting for us and keeping up the race to save our people. I find myself asking the same questions over and over, without answers: Is it fair to have the international human rights and environmental organizations do all of the heavy lifting for us in the ORB? When these organizations show so much care and concern for our people and our country, why are we so manifestly unconcerned? Why is that we do not join and support the organizations speaking up for our people? Why is it that we do not come to the aid of these organizations and defend them against the slings and arrows of a vicious regime which slanders them and scandalizes their good works? Would we be as passive and silent if the same environmental crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed in the name of "development" in other parts of Ethiopia? Are we manifestly unconcerned about the people of the ORB because they are marginalized ethnic minorities? Could it be that we are ashamed of the people of the ORB because they do not look "modern" like the rest of us, or are a "backward civilization" as the late Meles Zenawi once called them? How can we justify to future generations that they owe their legacy of environmental conservation and protection of the indigenous peoples of the ORB to the tireless efforts of international organizations? I ask my readers to think about these questions.

I think it is only fair that we should at least financially help those organizations who are helping us. There is no reason why we cannot demonstrate our support to them as they fight for the rights of our people in the ORB. We should be standing with them and not standing on the sidelines watching them.

The clear and present danger posed by the Gilgel Gibe III dam to the people of the ORB

The Gibe III dam poses a clear and present danger to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in the ORB including the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi, Nyangatom and Dasanech, among others, who have survived for millennia practicing what is called "flood retreat agriculture". At the end of the rainy season, the flooded land near the river banks provides rich silt for raising a variety of crops including sorghum, maize and beans. The very existence of these Ethiopians depends on the cyclical flooding season. The Gibe III dam will fundamentally disrupt the natural downstream flow by damming the river upstream for electricity production for export. Experts have convincingly argued that the water volume on the Omo River will be permanently reduced as a result of diversion of water for the dam reservoir and irrigation of sugar plantations. This will make flood retreat agriculture virtually impossible for the people living in the Basin. In August 2012, the world renowned conservationist and paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey challenged the self-serving Gibe III "scientific" studies minimizing the ecological effects of the dam and predicted, "the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream."

"Developing" the Omo River Basin

In late January 2011, Meles Zenawi gave a speech in Jinka, South Omo. It was vintage Meles– bombastic, bitter and full of bluster. He promised the sun and moon to the people trapped in the "backward civilization" of the ORB. He pledged to take them out of the stone age and into the modern age by making the region "an example of rapid development." He assured them that the "dam on the Omo River [will] eliminate flood, create a huge irrigation system and give pastoralists a sustainable income and a modern life."

With a vengeance, Meles demonized and lashed out at the environmental and human rights organizations urging care and caution in the construction of the Gibe III dam and protection of the way of life of the indigenous people. He characterized them as naysayers and doomsayers "who want to block our freedom to use our rivers, and to save our people from poverty." He called them malicious obstructionists. "They are creating huge propaganda... They are blocking us from getting financial loans from abroad to finish the project." He ridiculed them as "best friends of backwardness and poverty... who don't actually do anything tangible." He virtually called them self-absorbed racists because "all they want is keep the pastoralists as a tourist attraction" and keep the people of the ORB "a case study of ancient living for scientists and researchers."

Meles and his henchmen have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the environmental devastation that has occurred and continues to occur in the construction of the Gibe III dam and the "development" of the Basin. In July 2008, two years after construction began on the dam and international human rights and environmental organizations began sounding the alarm, Meles directed his "Environmental Protection Authority" to issue the Gibe III Environmental Social Impact Assessment. That report was a shameless whitewash which rubber-stamped Meles' pigheaded decision to forge ahead with the project. It was full of boldfaced lies. It unabashedly concluded that the reservoir area for Gibe III is unfit for human habitation because it is infested by deadly mosquitoes and tsetse flies (which cause "sleeping sickness"). It claimed, "There is no settlement in the future reservoir area and settlements are concentrated on the highland in areas outside the valley... There is very little farming activity around the Omo valley bottom lands. ... The population living within the proposed dam and the reservoir areas are not in close proximity to the UNESCO designated heritage site. No visible archaeological remains, which have scientific, cultural, public, economic, ethnic and historic significances, have been observed in the area and dam sites."

Meles' way of "modernizing" the "backward" people of the ORB was to turn over the Basin to Saudi Arabian and other foreign investors and his buddies. Meles announced in his speech that his "government is planning, and working hard to establish, a 150,000 hectare sugarcane development in this area starting this year." Sure enough, according to IC Magazine, "A Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi, with close links to the top-level Ethiopian leadership [was] allotted 10,000 hectares for a rice plantation. His massive project has done considerable damage to the local environment, which includes a national park and wildlife habitat, and local communities that have lived in their homelands for many generations."

Meles announced that five sugar factories will be built in the ORB by the Omo Kuraz Sugar Development project. According to "Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency", "Mesfin Industrial Engineering (MIE) signed ETB 3 billion ($162.2 million) worth contracts with state-owned enterprises to deliver machineries for the Tana Beles Integrated Sugar Development Project and the Kuraz Sugar development projects in the Amhara region and the Omo Valley..." MIE is "also producing railroad tracks for the Dire Dawa-Addis Ababa railway project and finalizing preparations to deliver the same for the Djibouti through Afar to Northern Ethiopia railway line."

In June 2011, UNESCO concluded that "GIBE III dam is likely to significantly alter Lake Turkana's fragile hydrological regime, and threaten its aquatic species and associated biological systems" and "urged the State Party of Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam [and not] damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage located on the territory of another State Party."

In Meles "development" plans, the impoverished and defenseless people of the ORB get the shaft while his filthy rich friends became super-filthy rich. According to one environmental study published in January 2014, "Construction of the Kuraz Sugar plantations (projected to cover 161,285 hectares) and accompanying infrastructure, including sugar processing factories and resettlement villages, has started in advance of completion of the Gibe III. The Kuraz Sugar plantations, plus additional area identified as suitable for cultivation (47,370 hectares), could eventually require over 50% of the Omo River inflow, depending on irrigation efficiency."

Meles Zenawi's "modernization" of the ORB was a windfall for his buddies, but it literally left the people of the Omo River Basin high and dry. Meles' vision for the ORB and its people was, "what's good for the 'Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi' and 'Mesfin Industrial Engineering' is good enough for the people of the Omo River Basin." That is how Ethiopians in the Omo River Basin got sold down the river!

The continuing race to save the Omo River and indigenous people

Last week, International Rivers released a video on the environmental risks to the Omo River valley and severe and irreversible damage that could result to the people and ecosystem of the valley if the dam and thoughtless "development" projects concocted by the regime in power in Ethiopia continue unrestrained. It is a video worth watching as it clearly explains the clear and present danger facing the ORB.

There is little scientific doubt that Gibe III dam and the irrigation diverting water on the Omo River poses a clear and present danger to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. Studies have shown that by ending the river's natural flood cycle, harvests, grazing lands, river banks and fisheries extending to Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, would be destroyed. The dam will devastate the unique culture and ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Experts fear that "Gibe III could destroy the fragile ecosystem for an additional 300,000 people downstream in Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which gets up to 90% of its water from the Omo River."

It is particularly important for Ethiopians to understand the scope of the environmental damage and the human cost of the dam in the ORB. I specially urge my Ethiopian readers to view the Amharic version of the International Rivers video by clicking HERE or on the picture below.

USAID and Donors Assistance Group in Ethiopia (a/k/a those who "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" in the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin)

The official position of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Development Assistance Group's (DAG) (a consortium of 26 donors) in Ethiopia has been to stonewall any questions of human rights abuses in the ORB. Stated bluntly, their official response could best be characterized as: "We see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil about human rights violations in the Omo River Basin."

In October 2010, a few days after Human Right Watch released its report on the abuses of aid in Ethiopia, USAID and DAG issued a statement denying the "widespread, systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. Our study did not generate any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion." In 2012, USAID reported that it "did not find evidence to support claims [of human right violations] during its visit to South Omo." In a letter dated January 17, 2014, Dennis Weller USAID, current Mission Director in Ethiopia stated that his agency and "other donors have been monitoring the situation in South Omo" and that "the main finding from these trips is that there are no reports of widespread or systematic human rights abuses. Our observations do not support assertions... that the resettlement processes are accompanied by systematic and widespread human rights abuses."

Interestingly, Weller's comments brushing off human rights abuses in the ORB are in stark contrast to his predecessor Thomas Staal's. In an interview Stall gave before his reassignment to Bagdad in October 2010, he made the stunning admission that "with respect to political participation, we have not done a good job. Specifically, with respect to the election that took place two years ago, we have not done much to promote democracy... This is a hard situation that causes us to despair." No reason for Weller to "despair" over human rights abuses in the ORB!

The official position of USAID and DAG with respect to human rights abuses in the ORB could be reduced to two basic propositions: 1) The reports by international human rights and environmental organizations concerning forced evictions, villagization, resettlement, denial of access to subsistence land, beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of government assistance are all fabrications and lies. 2) Even if the reports are accurate, they document anecdotal and isolated incidents which do amount to "systematic and widespread human rights abuses".

USAID's denial of "systematic and widespread human rights abuses" in Ethiopia should not surprise anyone. For years, USAID has taken shelter behind the empty phrase "systematic and widespread human rights abuses". When Meles Zenawi declared in 2010 that his party had won the parliamentary elections by 99.6 percent, USAID found no "systematic and widespread human rights abuses". When the Meles regime was committing crimes against humanity in Gambella and Ogaden regions, USAID transformed itself into USA In Denial. When hundreds of top opposition political figures, activists, civil society leaders, journalists, dissidents, bloggers, human rights advocates were jailed, USAID's response was, "No systematic and widespread human rights abuses". Nope! Nyet! Nien! Pray tell, what exactly is "massive and systematic human rights violations"? Does USAID mean, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic"? Perhaps for USAID a single human rights violation in the ORB is a tragedy but the wholesale violation of the human rights of the people in the Omo River Basin is a statistic?!

The fact of the matter is that USAID and others who visited the Omo region in January 2012 were provided compelling "audio recordings of the interviews conducted in several Lower Omo communities." These recording "leave no room for doubt that the donor agencies were given highly credible first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations during the field investigation [undertaken by USAID and the Development Assessment Group] and that they have chosen to steadfastly ignore these accounts."

U.S. Congress joins the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin

In July 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) included language in Senate Bill 1372 imposing certain certification requirements in the administration of U.S. aid in Ethiopia. The Leahy language was adopted in the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014" which passed both houses on January 3, 2014. Section 7042(d) of the Act requires the U.S. Secretary of State to "certify to the Committees on Appropriations that the Government of Ethiopia is implementing policies to — (i) protect judicial independence; freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion; the right of political opposition parties, civil society organizations, and journalists to operate without harassment or interference; and due process of law; and (ii) permit access to human rights and humanitarian organizations to the Somali region of Ethiopia." It further requires that U.S. ''Development Assistance' and 'Economic Support Fund' that are available for assistance in the lower Omo and Gambella regions of Ethiopia shall— (A) not be used to support activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions; (B) support initiatives of local communities to improve their livelihoods; and (C) be subject to prior consultation with affected populations." The law requires the "Secretary of the Treasury to instruct the United States executive director of each international financial institution to oppose financing for any activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions in Ethiopia." It seems the international human rights and environmental organizations that have been campaigning to protect the ORB and Gambella ecosystems and indigenous peoples have been right all along!!

Where are Ethiopians in the race to save the ORB and the indigenous people?

The titular prime minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, is said to be knowledgeable about water development and sanitation. He reportedly held a "graduate assistantship" at Arba Minch Water Technology Institute. He is also said to come from "an Omotic community which forms the principal population group in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region." It is reasonable to suppose that Hailemariam would take both personal and professional interest in the environmental destruction and human cost of "development" in the ORB. Unfortunately, Hailemariam has repeatedly declared the he "will strive to carry on Meles' vision to transform the country", and by the same token oversee the destruction of the ORB ecosystem and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the Basin.

I admit it is a complete exercise in futility, but I urge Hailemariam and his regime to learn from the tragedy of Lake Oroumieh in Iran. That lake has shrunk by 80 percent in 10 years as a result of damning rivers and irrigation projects. The response of the Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, to the environmental disaster was "to form a team and to invite scholars to help find solutions."

I have no reason to believe that Hailemariam and his crew care much about Lake Turkana in which the Omo River empties or the environmental damage in the ORB. I know that a regime afflicted by the arrogance of ignorance will not invite scholars and experts in the field to seek long-term solutions. I expect the regime leaders will repeat like a broken record their Pollyannish rhetoric about the ORB and demonizing condemnation of all who urge caution and care. Regardless, I find it a historical imperative to register the fact that Hailemariam and Co., have a legal duty to mitigate the environmental disaster and human catastrophe in the ORB. After all, they must understand that "Truth will not remain forever on the scaffold, nor wrong forever remain on the throne."

What about Diaspora Ethiopians? Will they join the race to save their fellow Ethiopians damned by the Gibe III dam? Will they stand up and speak up for the voiceless, defenseless, powerless and helpless people of the ORB? Will they stand up and be counted with the people of the ORB or abandon them because they are a "backward civilization" as Meles Zenawi called them? Will they join International River, Human Rights Watch, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group in the heavy lifting and uphill fighting to save the Omo River Basin and its indigenous people? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I will be doing what I always do: Carry water (though not from the Omo River) for those doing the heavy lifting and uphill fighting!

"Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights/3 and international human rights law." United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 61/295.

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:


In a remote part of East Africa, the Ethiopian government is furtively transforming a pastoral landscape populated by indigenous agro-pastoralists into an industrial powerhouse of dams and plantations. While the government says these developments are intended to reduce poverty, those on the ground see their land and water being taken from them, their homesteads bulldozed, their choices narrowed. Impacts will be felt all the way to Kenya.

The developments in the Lower Omo Valley pivot on the construction of the hugeGibe III Dam, a hydropower project that also regulates river flows to support year-round commercial agriculture. The dam's reservoir could begin filling in May, bringing major changes to the Omo's flow. A new film by International Rivers, A Cascade of Development on the Omo River, reveals the hydrological havoc that could ensue.

The biggest hydrological risks actually come from what is happening on the land. A government plan to convert hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to irrigated plantations could be devastating to people and ecosystems downstream. Information is hard to come by on these land conversions, so Human Rights Watch (HRW) used high-tech tools to document the changes. HRW's new analysis of satellite imagesreveals that the Ethiopian government continues to clear land used by indigenous groups to make way for state-run sugar plantations in the Lower Omo. The group reports that virtually all of the traditional lands of the 7,000-member Bodi indigenous group have been cleared in the past 15 months. Human rights abuses have accompanied the land grabs.

These massive developments will usurp the vast majority of the water in the Omo River basin, potentially devastating the livelihoods of the 500,000 indigenous peoplewho directly or indirectly rely on the Omo's waters for their livelihoods.

Most significantly, the changes in river flow caused by the dam and the irrigation schemes could cause a huge drop in the water levels of Kenya's Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The lake, which receives 90 percent of its water from the Omo River, is projected to drop by about two meters during the initial filling of the dam. If current plans to create new plantations continue to move forward, the lake could drop as much as 16 to 22 meters. The average depth of the lake is just 31 meters.

The Big Dry Begins
This will be the first year that river flow past the Gibe III Dam is almost completely blocked. Reservoir filling is expected to take up to three years, and during this time the Omo River's annual flow could drop by as much as 70%. After this initial shock, regular dam operations will continue to devastate ecosystems and local livelihoods. Changes to the river's flooding regime will harm yields from flood-recession agriculture, prevent the replenishment of important grazing areas, and reduce fish populations -- all critical resources for livelihoods of local indigenous groups.

In a positive first step, the Ethiopian government has agreed to discuss joint management of the Omo Basin with the Kenyan government. To give this process weight and greater legitimacy, organizers should ensure that affected people are able to directly voice their concerns.

Although the dam seems to be a fait accompli, there are still options for managing the river in a way to reduce the risk that Lake Turkana becomes the planet's next Aral Sea. A process to devise a dam-management system of more natural flows (called"environmental flows") could reduce the worst social and environmental impacts of the dam and irrigation schemes.

To show it is serious about sustainable management of this important lifeline, the Ethiopian government should halt water withdrawals until a cumulative environmental-impact assessment of all developments in the Lower Omo is carried out by internationally reputable experts. Ethiopia should also commit to abiding by the assessment's findings on how much water the river needs to keep Lake Turkana healthy.

A large percentage of Ethiopia's budget comes from Western donors. These donorsmust play a bigger role in monitoring the situation now unfolding in the Lower Omo, and be prepared to put forth sticks along with the carrots if significant progress isn't made in resolving these problems. To turn a blind eye would make them complicit in large-scale human rights violations and environmental destruction.

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Surma people - Omo valley Ethiopia

On the first day of June, we recieved an alert that the Ethiopian government forces have continued their killing spree aimed at forcing Lower Omo tribespeople out of their land and into the resettlement lands that the government has set aside. This forced resettlement scheme is as a result of the lands of these people having been leased out by the central government to foreign agricultural investments to establish comercial plantations.

There can only be one way to express the pain that these poor people feel about forceful relocation - by publishing the email we recieved unedited.

Dear All,

The Suri, a conglomerate group of the Timaga, Chai, and Balas, are linguistically similar to Mursi and known for lip plates worn by the women. They are cattle herders, as well as cultivators, in their mountains lands to the west of the Omo River.

There have been more recent killings in Suri by the Ethiopian military. Numerous sources have confirmed this. Three Suri had their hands and feet tied and were thrown off the Dima bridge (of Dima town) into the water and drowned. Seven more were found shot along the road. These bodies were left to be eaten by hyenas and vultures.

There have been more reports that others were killed in the bush, but there has been no count of how many. This all is because the Suri are refusing to move into the government resettlement site. The resettlement site has been cleared and demarcated, but no infrastructure work has begun. The Suri are vehemently opposed to resettlement. They say, 'Are we the government's children? If you tells us to move into one place, we just go?'

Last week it was reported that 1500-2000 Ethiopian soldiers were in Suri territory to disarm them. The Suri say this all has to do with the lease of a large section of their land to a Malaysian palm oil plantation.


The Gibe hydroelectric project is one of a series of damming projects that have been undertaken by the Ethiopian government. The project is a public-private partnership planned as a 25 year national energy master plan of Ethiopia. The planned increase in power generation, however far exceeds domestic needs with the surplus which is estimated at 50 percent being exported to the neighboring countries including Kenya which the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCo) predicts to export 500MW to.

Download Gibe III Fact sheet and other documents here to obtain more background information pertaining to the Gibe III project.

The Gibe III threatens the biodiversity, livelihoods, and development of Northern Kenya, yet these potential risks have not been taken into account in the project planning by the Government of Ethiopia. The project has been opposed by local and international environmental and human rights groups and advocates. However, it was ultimately approved based on an incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that did not adequately take into account the perspectives of indigenous communities around Lake Turkana.

To find out more about the threats the Lake faces with its construction, click here

Despite the potential impacts of the dam on the lake’s ecosystem and livelihoods, Ethiopia has continued to pursue the project without an adequate environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) or proper consultation with the Lake Turkana Basin communities. FoLT is therefore working to bring attention to the impacts which Gibe III Dam will have on the Lake Turkana region and peoples and to find lasting solutions to this social injustice.

Visit our news or blog pages to read articles to learn more about our activities to oppose the Gibe III project.



Dams and irrigated plantations being built in Ethiopia will bring major changes to the flow of the Lower Omo River, which in turn will harm ecosystem functions and local livelihoods all the way to the river's terminus at Lake Turkana in Kenya. More dams are planned for the basin that would compound the damages. 

Here we outline some of the basic changes that can be expected as a result of these developments, and include resources on where to get more information. 

The video below illustrates the hydrological risks the dam and plantations bring to the Lower Omo and Lake Turkana:


 Fast Facts

Lower Omo River. Alison M. Jones (No Water No Life)
  • The Gibe III reservoir is expected to start filling at the beginning of the next Kiremt rainy season (approximately May 2014); filling the reservoir will take up to three years. During this time, the river’s yearly flow will drop as much as 70%.   
  • The Gibe III will provide stable flows year-round that will enable the growth of large commercial agricultural plantations in the Lower Omo. The Kuraz sugar plantation and additional areas identified for cultivation could eventually take almost half of the Omo River inflow to Lake Turkana. 
  • These projects will cause a decrease in river flow and the size, length, and number of floods, which will be disastrous for downstream users. This is the first year in which runoff from the Kiremt season, which is vital for flood-recession agriculture, restoration of grazing areas, and fisheries production, will be almost completely blocked. 
    Fishermen and their dried catch, Lake Turkana
    Fishermen and their dried catch, Lake Turkana
    • Changes to the flooding regime will disrupt fish spawning cues and decrease productive habitat for fish in Lake Turkana and the river. Lake fish catches may decrease.
  • Because the Omo River contributes almost all of Lake Turkana’s inflows each year, these developments could cause a big drop in lake water levels. Lake Turkana is projected to drop by about two meters during the initial filling of the dam. If current plans to create new plantations move forward, the lake could drop from 16 to 22 meters. The average depth of the lake is just 31 meters.    
  • በኢትዮጵያ በታችኛው የኦሞ ሸለቆ እየተገነቡ ያሉት ተያያዥ የልማት ፕሮጀክቶች በወንዙ የውኃ ፍሰት እና ከወንዙ ጋር ህይወቱን አቆራኝቶ በሚኖረው የአካባቢው ህብረተሰብ ዘንድ ታላቅ አደጋን ጋርጦ ይገኛል፡፡ እንደዚሁም በጊቤ ሶስት የኤሌክትሪክ ግድብ ግንባታ እና ከዚሁ ጋር በተያያዘ መልኩ እየተከናወነ ባለው ከፍተኛ የመስኖ ልማት ልማት ስራ ምክንያት በቱርካና ሀይቅ ላይ ከፍተኛ የሆነ የውኃ መጠን የመቀነስ አዝማሚያ በመከሰቱ በአካባቢው ብዝኃ ሕይወት እና የህዝቦች ኑሮ ላይ ከፍተኛ አደጋ ተጋርጧል፡፡
  • Climate change could worsen the water situation in the Omo. More extreme droughts and unpredictable precipitation patterns, combined with higher temperatures (which increase evaporation), could cause further stress to a region that already experiences extreme precipitation variability. There is evidence that there will be a drying trend and warmer temperatures.

  • The Gibe III and associated irrigation projects will limit people’s mobility and ability to practice diverse livelihoods, which are important ways people in the region have adapted to climate variability in the past. 
  • The primary means of livelihood for about 500,000 people will be dismantled by the Gibe III and large-scale commercial agriculture. Conflicts over scarce resources are expected to increase.

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