The Omo River Tribes: The HydroElectric Dam Leaving the People of Ethiopia in the Dark
With growing scepticism of foreign involvement in domestic affairs, many developing states are beginning to implement policies limiting international presence; from international aid and NGOs to Corporate Investment. However, in the immensely interdependent world, especially due to the state many countries have been left in from colonial exploitation and its lingering influence, this is a luxury that certain leaders feel their people cannot afford.
Ethiopia is one of these nations that, instead of reducing the permeability of its borders in view of endogenous domestic progression as a priority, have in recent times opted to open itself up to outside help; being further at the whim of global forces. One such example of this dynamic is the ‘Gibe III’ hydro-electric dam that is currently under construction. It is located on the Lower Omo River Valley region, in the South-West of Ethiopia, and is being built by the Italian company ‘Salini Costruttori’ and part funded by the Chinese bank ‘ICBC’.
The region is home to some eight different tribes of a population estimated to be around 200,000. There are grave concerns that this will lead to the rapid degradation of the fragile ecosystem and the livelihoods of the tribes who maintain a close affinity with the river and its cycles. The annual flooding of the river is essential to the biodiversity of the region and, with generally low and erratic rainfall, the food security of the tribal people. The culture of subsistence farming, grazing livestock, hunting and fishing is at severe risk. ‘Flood retreat agriculture’ has been developed over generations and the aggregation of complex ecological practices that are dynamic to the harsh conditions provide stability to the Bodi (Me’en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom people, in particular, that live along the Omo.
Since 2011 large areas of this fertile land have been leased out to Transnational Corporations by the government. While this may lead to the illusion of growth and progression for the nation, the reality is the cash crops grown on the land are actually diminishing the capacity of the people rather than increasing it. Capital flows out of the country and those marginalised by the process become dependent on aid for survival. There are also further plans to form irrigation canals that will divert the waters in the favour of agri-business plantations, at the detriment of the local communities. Swathes of indigenous people have been forcibly resettled, with those opposing the de facto theft of their land reported to be beaten and thrown in jail. This has even involved alleged raping and killing by the Ethiopian Defence Force that patrol the region in view of safeguarding the construction process.
It is apparent that the government is turning a blind eye to the goings on around the Lower Omo Valley, which is actually already a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ethiopian law dictates the required completion of an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) before any project approval, as well as the Ethiopian Constitution guaranteeing tribes ‘full consultation’ in the environmental policies and ‘projects that affect them directly’. The reality, however, is that two years after the start of construction the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency retrospectively granted approval of the ESIA, which was dubiously facilitated by an Italian company, CESI, and funded by an Ethiopian energy corporation. The indigenous communities have rarely been contacted throughout this process, with the majority having next to no knowledge about the project, and with the Justice Bureau even revoking 41 ‘Community Association’ licenses in July 2009 for not cooperating with government policy.
The largest two donors to Ethiopia, The USA and UK, have failed to investigate allegations of these human rights abuses in connection with the project, despite their contact with the Bodi and Mursi representatives. Away from the lack of international solidarity, the voice of the indigenous people remains disarticulated from the bottom-up as a result of the 2009 decree that prevents any NGO that receives more than 10% foreign funding from promoting human rights and democracy. With the suppression of the tribespeople leaving them with little room for manoeuvre or agency for change, inter-ethnic conflict has the potential to flare up in competition for the dwindling resources. The Valley peoples have had a history of relative harmony and positive exchange, but this is deteriorating with periodic inter-ethnic conflicts as more and more land is being taken away; as well as the appearance of firearms intensifying the fighting.
Independent expert evaluation has shown how the Omo River in its natural flow is a lifeline to the varying ecosystems and the livelihood of the peoples of the Valley region. Whilst the project may be pushed through in the name of sustainable development, these types of large scale top-down development projects are often blunt instruments and can cause more harm to the poor than good. In Ethiopia the needs and rights of the Omo River people are being categorically denied and their functioning culture is being eradicated under the influence of Transnational Corporate forces and corrupt elites. The potential for water wars and mass hunger are not to be taken lightly. Some major international institutions have already distanced themselves from the project and the growing petition to support the tribespeople is not in vain. Greater international solidarity is required to achieve social justice, especially as the power of local people to deter damaging projects and stop this man-made disaster cannot be underestimated.