Omo River Basin

Expedition ’08 Report Summary

Wings WorldQuest Flag Thirteen (13)


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Omo River Basin Expedition
including Nech Sar National Park and The Water Technology Institute

WHO: Alison M. Jones, NWNL Founder, Director and Lead Photographer
Jane Baldwin, NWNL Photographer

WHAT: To research and document fresh water availability, usage and quality in the Omo River Basin, according to the mission of No Water No Life

WHERE: Lower Omo River, Omo Delta, Nech Sar N.P. and Arba Minch, Ethiopia

WHY: To raise awareness of the vulnerability of watersheds in Africa’s developing nations by documenting threats to the Omo River of four upstream dams.

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies

Expedition maps

See Expedition Maps of the Omo River Basin


January 23 – February 11, 2008

This was No Water No Life’s first expedition to the Omo River Basin during its low water season when stakeholders practice traditional flood-recession agriculture.


See Expedition Maps of the Omo River Basin.

NWNL carried Wings WorldQuest Flag #13 on the project’s third expedition to the Omo River Basin. This NWNL case-study watershed is located in the Great Rift Valley in the northwestern corner of Africa. The Omo is a perennial river that flows 621 miles southward through Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) and ends in Kenya’s Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolph. The Lower Omo Valley was designated a World Heritage Site in 1980 in recognition of its role as the "cradle of humanity and fossil discoveries, especially Homo gracilis." This expedition documented each of the Omo River Basin’s four hydrologic regions: The Shewan Highlands, Omo Valley, Omo Delta and Lake Turkana.

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies



Project Director and Lead Photographer: Alison M. Jones

Photographer: Jane Baldwin


Project and Expedition Coordinator: Robin MacEwan

Science Advisor: Dr. Robin Sears

Base Manager: Jasmine Graf

Research Consultant: Erin Vintinner

Researcher: Sarah Doyle

About Alison M. Jones

Alison M. Jones is a conservation photographer who has documented ecosystems and their management for over 20 years in Africa and the Americas. She founded No Water No Life in 2006 to raise public awareness of freshwater issues by combining the powers of photography and science in three watersheds in North America and three in northeastern Africa. She and No Water No Life teams have thus far completed nine expeditions to the Blue Nile, Mara, Columbia, Mississippi and Raritan River Basins. While creating multi-media outputs for No Water No Life Alison has also fostered stewarding partnerships within and between watersheds, used her photography to help halt destructive watershed development, provided educational tools for teachers and students and raised general awareness to help create a global political will to protect the planet’s fresh water resources.

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies


FUNDING: The expedition’s travel costs came from four generous donors from New York City. In-kind donations came from individuals and organizations including Robin MacEwan, Erin Vintinner, Sarah Doyle and Alison Jones Photography and Jade Sea Journeys. Appreciation is also extended to Halewijn Scheuerman who facilitated the Lower Omo Valley aspect of the expedition and to all those at The Water Institute of Arba Minch who graciously gave time for interviews.

SPONSORS: WINGS WorldQuest, a nonprofit that supports women explorers, honored the expedition by awarding it their Expedition Flag Number 13. As well, WINGS WorldQuest is the fiscal sponsor for No Water No Life. Terri Hathaway of International Rivers has kindly shared her research on the Lower Omo Valley and the impact of the Gibe Dams. As well International Rivers has granted No Water No Life use of its maps. [See Appendix 1]

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies


Documentation focused on tribal lifestyles, flora and fauna, development efforts and hydrology within the Omo. This was NWNL’s third trip to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, so the organization was relatively easy. The itinerary was simple and previous ground-handlers set up travel and camping logistics. Contacts were made with stakeholders, The Water Institute and local stewards. Travel was by chartered plane, 4WD vehicles, and motorboat. Locales documented included the Gibe III Dam, Lower Omo Valley, Omo Delta and Lake Turkana, the Omo’s outlet.

Still photography, video and interviews were used with No Water No Life’s in-house research report, previous expedition data and local news sources. Visas were obtained on arrival. As permits are not available for visiting the Gibe III Dam, a charter flight was used for aerial views. It costs 25 cents per person for photos of the indigenous people. The Water Institute protocol is that all meetings are coordinated through the Dean.


1. As with earlier NWNL expeditions, a basic key was a NWNL coordinator in the US to coordinating meetings and schedules changing at the last minute.

2. One more member was needed to be in charge of video photography. It is too difficult for the Expedition Leader to do interviews, the still photography, expedition journaling and coordination of details- as well as the video.

3. The trip was more successful because we were only two and could travel quickly and easily. Visits to indigenous villages were much less intrusive than if a large crew been involved.

4. In tribal villages, time needs to be spent gently to absorb its rhythms and meet its residents before photographing. Do pay each person you photograph. Many are watching, and if you’re caught sneaking an image, you will be condemned and ruin it for those who follow.

5. During this extremely hot and humid time of the year, Omo Valley residents work in early morning and late afternoon, so plan accordingly.

6. Travel by boat allows much greater access to remote reaches of the river and villages than travel by car.

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See Attachment 3: EXPEDITION ITINERARY, p 14.

One of six No Water No Life (NWNL] case-study watersheds, the perennial Omo River is pivotal to the survival of wildlife and people inhabiting its Basin. It supports a unique riverine habitat, supplies 90% of the water volume of Lake Turkana and is a reliable water source all year for fauna, flora and humans. For thousands of years in this Cradle of Humankind, Ethiopia’s Omo River has dropped 60 to 100 feet during the dry season, allowing local tribes to sustain themselves through flood-recession agriculture.

However now that sustainability is threatened and the result of water shortage and famine could quickly lead to aggression and deadly violence, a problem already haunting other areas of the Horn of Africa. NWNL’s purpose is draw attention to these problems and support efforts at sustainable management solutions for the Omo - Turkana Basin. This expedition focused on the vulnerability of the Omo’s wetlands and 3 indigenous stakeholder groups: the Hamar, the Dassanech and the Karo tribes.

Lower Omo Basin: Omo River Basin documentation is key to NWNL’s coverage of developing nations’ fresh-water issues. Today the Omo River Basin is threatened by:

  • Four Gilgel Gibe hydro-dams being built in the Upper Omo Basin
  • Increase of modern irrigation destroying flora and fauna of riverine forests
  • Disruptive Westernizing effects of a new highway crossing the Omo from oil-rich Sudan to Kenya’s ports
  • Proposed commercial venture: oil exploration, commercial cotton farming
  • Growing populations need for more farm land and water access
  • Climate Change effects of less precipitation downstream that causes droughts and heavier storms in the highlands that cause flash flooding

Lake Turkana Basin: Recent water extraction by irrigation on the Omo River has decreased the volume of water entering Lake Turkana by 50%. Rainfall deficiency, exacerbated by local evapo-transpiration that is higher than the mean annual rainfall, makes the Turkana Basin susceptible to drought and ecological degradation. Further lowering of water levels of the Omo by the proposed Gibe Dams would imperil

  • The livelihoods of 300,000 inhabitants of the Turkana Basin
  • 35 fish species
  • 94 mammal species
  • Many resident and migratory bird populations
  • 4 types of wetlands: palustrine, lacustrine, montane and man-made.

Stewardship Challenges: Other documentation during this expedition included many interviews of scientists, hydrologists and policy-makers at Ethiopia’s Water Insititute; meetings with conservation stewards; and a tour of Nech Sar National Park following up from research there 4 years earlier. Two key stewards of the Omo River Basin were interviewd: the Director of Omo National Park and a researcher studying the possible transmission of bovine tuberculosis to humans as they share the same water access.

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies


I. Gibe III Dam – Upper Omo River

From a chartered plane, NWNL photographed construction on the Gilgel Gibe III Dam. Begun in 2006, it will be the largest hydro project in Ethiopia generating 1870 MW for the cost of almost US $2 billion. It’s first power was projected for 2011 and completion in 2012. It would be the tallest dam in Africa and double the country’s current capacity.

However there’s been no Environmental or Social Impact Assessment, dam-safety monitoring, downstream warning systems or emergency releases in case of heavy flooding or dam failure. Several NGO’s have estimated that the Gibe III Dam would threaten traditional, sustainable lifestyles of half a million indigenous stakeholders. Questions also abound about the appropriateness of the location for this roller-compacted concrete dam.

II. Lower Omo River Basin Highlands – Hamar Villages

In the eastern hills above the Omo River, NWNL visited indigenous Hamar tribal village on the Omo’s Dilabino tributary. The area was unusually arid due to the lack of any December rain. NWNL documented a Hamar bull-jumping rite of passage, trading with other tribes living closer to the Omo River, a sorghum mill and Hamar family life. The Hamar, like other hill tribes, are dependent on the Omo floods. Even though they are not directly engaged in flood-retreat agriculture, they rely on flood-fed grazing lands and trade with those who do produce flood-recession crops.

Several water-related lifestyle problems were noted. The health of the Hamar suffers from lack of clean fresh water for drinking, sanitation and washing. Over-grazing of livestock and removal of vegetation has added heavy sediment loads that eventually flow into the Omo River. Small irrigation projects here – and throughout the Lower Omo Valley – are reducing the Omo’s water discharge into Lake Turkana by 50%.

III. Deltaic Wetlands – Dassanech Villages

The Omo Delta begins at Omorate, a customs town between Ethiopia and Kenya. Developments here impacting the flow of the Omo River include:

  • A bridge for the international Sudan-Kenya highway.
  • The revamping of a cotton plantation and concrete irrigation ditches from the Mengistu Regime when North Korea established a cotton enterprise here. The Omo River provided their water, and political prisoners provided their labor. Now Ethiopian officials will pull out Omo water to raise cotton in this malaria-ridden, arid land.
  • A large highway being built to Addis so cotton can be trucked out efficiently.

Further south, in the Omo Delta, a wetlands network of channels and islands supports the Dassanech tribe’s livestock and flood recession agriculture. As they move their villages and cattle over this vast delta, the Dassanech often impinge on other tribes also gathering reeds, grazing livestock and farming. This struggle over resources causes fierce, and often fatal, inter-tribal clashes over land usage. This will worsen if controlled water levels end natural flood fertilization, thus reducing grazing for livestock.

Windmills, built by international NGO’s, are now pumping water up above steep riverbanks, providing irrigation that expands the reach of the river. Thus farmers are cutting down the riverine forest to make room for more crops, without awareness of the role of tree roots in holding water and stabilizing banks. Erosion was clearly visible.

To document the Omo’s outlet, NWNL boated to Lake Turkana, the life force for much of the arid Northern Frontier District of Kenya. The Omo River provides 80% of Lake Turkana’s volume and sustains 300,000 people. Kenya’s "Friends of Lake Turkana" is now protesting to the Ethiopian government that this "Jade Sea" cannot sustain the lowered water levels that would result from the filling of the Gibe III Dam reservoir. Kenyans are insisting on being consulted in the Environmental and Social Impact Study.

IV. Flood Recession Agriculture – Karo Villages

Near Murule, NWNL observed the dependence of Karo tribal villages on the Omo River for their sustenance. Two-thirds of the Karo diet comes from agriculture, gathering, hunting and fishing and one third from livestock. As the river drops its annual rate of 40-60 feet, they plant sorghum and maize on the banks. Sorghum is becoming the predominant crop as its seeds only need to be wet when planted. No further irrigation is needed - a huge benefit in these arid lands.

If Gibe III Dam contols the Omo River’s water levels and climate change continues to cause droughts, the Karo will face famines similar to the rest of southern Ethiopia as. Also, while the Karo maintain their small population of 600, other Omo Valley tribes are growing and need more river access for livestock and more farming plots, despite finite growing areas near river banks. This incurs deforestation, soil disturbance, erosion, intensive over-grazing, formation of gullies and drainage of wetlands. These pressures are heightening tensions that result in fatalities since all Omo Valley men carry Kalishnakovs left over from the Mengistu regime.

V. Science and Stewardship

The final days of the expedition were in Arba Minch visiting the Water Technology Institute to interview the Dean, scientists, agricultural consultants and hydrologists, and Nech Sar National Park to follow up on its management challenges as previously addressed by NWNL. The last day in Addis Ababa NWNL interviewed two Omo River Basin stewards: the Director of Omo National Park and a researcher studying the possible transmission of bovine tuberculosis to humans sharing the same water access.

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Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies


The expedition was highly valuable opportunity for NWNL to assess the value of a perennial river to indigenous people in a developing nation, as well as the current and future threats to their livelihoods, natural resources and healthy ecosystems.

The Lower Omo Valley has has had little tourism development or infrastructure investment. Until now, this has separated the Omo’s remote tribes from modern influences and maintained the balance of natural resources on which they depend.

Yet all is changing very fast in the Omo Valley for these stakeholders. NWNL predicts that without immediate resource management attention:

  • Dams will end Omo tribe’s sustainable agricultural practices;
  • New highways will bring diseases and modern ways that end cultural traditions
  • Irrigation schemes will lower the water in the river, delta and lake to dangerous levels
  • Climate change, deforestation, drainage of wetlands and overgrazing will continue to worsen soil and hydrologic conditions
  • The needs of rising populations for more water and food supplies will create more aggressive violence for rights to water access and farm land near the river.

NWNL is publishing photos from this expedition via print and Internet media, exhibits and lectures. The Omo videotapes will lead to a documentary; and marketing of Karo paintings, done for NWNL, will be used to benefit both the Karo and further NWNL research.

Images and photo essays from this expedition have been honored in prestigious international photographic contests. NWNL is partnering with International Rivers in the effort to halt international fiscal support of the Gibe Dams. Information gleaned from this expedition appears on the NWNL website, Twitter page and email newsletters.

NWNL hopes for the Omo – Turkana watersheds and their stakeholders that the future will bring insightful and sustainable stewardship over the issues witnessed that threaten this watershed’s ecosystems and residents.

Top   ·   Expedition Title   ·   Dates & Location   ·   Participants   ·   Funding
Documentation Technique   ·   Purpose   ·   Experience & Conclusions   ·   Results   ·   Biographies


Expedition Participants

Alison M. Jones, Project Director and Lead Photographer, Conservation Photographer

Previously on the following NWNL’s Expeditions: ’07 and 08 Columbia River Basin; ’05 and ’07 Omo River Basin; ’05 and’07 Blue Nile River Basin; ’08 Mississippi Delta and ’08 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Alison M. Jones has photographed for over 20 years in Africa, mostly for conservation and development programs. As she copiloted over thousands of miles of Africa’s rivers and lakeshores, she saw them as ribbons of life, and became immersed in studying global issues of water. She founded No Water No Life, LLC, as a nonprofit project using the power of photography to help disseminate scientists and conservationists’ warnings of watershed degradation and to publicize successful stewardship programs. Her images are found in magazines, television, books, workshops, lectures, and exhibits. Granted an honorary Masters Degree in Photography from Brooks Institute, she is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photography, on the Board of North American Nature Photography Association and member of ASMP, the Explorers Club and TechnoServe (a development NGO). She is a founding supporter of Kenya’s Mara Conservancy and currently enrolled at Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. Her web site is

Jane Baldwin, Project Photographer

Previously on NWNL’s 2005 and 2007 Omo River Basin and 2005 Blue Nile River Basin Expeditions

Jane Baldwin is a fine art photographer, working exclusively with black and white film. Her work has appeared in individual and group shows, most recently the Center for Photographic Arts (Carmel CA). Jane was on Alison’s 2004 "Over the Waters of Africa" expedition flying over waterways of 9 sub-Sahara countries and her 2005 "Waters of Ethiopia and Kenya" safari to water sources of Ethiopia and deserts of Kenya. Originally from Seattle, Jane’s connection to the natural world from an early age reflects itself in her life and work. She began traveling to Africa in the early 1990s, forming an immediate attachment to its land, people and environment. The natural world, taken for granted as a child, became a preoccupation. In Africa the elaborate interdependence of environment, people, water, and dams seems more obvious than in developed cultures, which serves as a reminder to those in developed continents to care for these fragile elements. Jane serves on the Board of Directors of PhotoAlliance in San Francisco, where she has lived since 1994. When not photographing in Africa, she spends time in Sonoma County CA raising olives and producing olive oil using sustainable and organic horticultural practices.