Omo River Basin

A Cascade of Development on the Omo River

A Cascade of Development on the Omo River by International Rivers
with photos by Alison M. Jones, 2014 (11:19).

Description by NWNL: In this film International Rivers explains how a predicted 70% water-level reduction by the dams over the next 3 years will drastically affect Ethiopia’s Omo River, its Lake Turkana terminus in Kenya, and 1/2 million residents in this Rift Valley’s Cradle of Humankind. These hydro-dams – and the new commercial agricultural plantations they will irrigate – threaten livelihoods of the local tribes and ecosystems. The five proposed Gibe Dams also imperil migrating birds, fish and crocodile populations, and the scant amount of wildlife left. This film requests that water flows from the new dams be managed to maintain the sustainability of the Omo River, Lake Turkana, and today’s indigenous communities who represent 6000 years of self-sustaining flood-recession farmers and fishermen.

Value of the threatened Omo River Basin: Since 2007, NWNL has documented the Omo-Turkana Basin, visiting, living with and filming the lives, ceremonies and struggles of indigenous cultures of Kenya’s Lake Turkana and its Ethiopian source, the Omo River, a 621-mile lifeline in an otherwise very arid watershed. The greatest threat to these communities today is from the construction of Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams.

For many millennia, the Omo’s annual 60-foot floods from the highlands’ monsoonal rains have supplied nutrient-rich silt and irrigation for the crops of the Mursi, Suri, Karo, Hamar, Nyangatom, Dassanech and other unique indigenous cultures. In a 2008 NWNL interview, Ian Stevenson (then heading African Parks’ project in Omo N.P.) described these tribes as “highly developed in their society and also incredibly intelligent.” But by stopping the annual Omo floods, the Gibe dams will end the enrichment of upstream silt deposition and local tribes’ traditional flood-recession agriculture. This will dramatically reduce their harvest and impair their livelihoods, which until now have been self-sustaining.

Ethiopia: Aerial view of construction of the third Gibe River dam in the Upper Omo River Basin

NWNL Background on Gibe Dams: In considering the pros and cons of dam building in the Omo River Valley – or any watershed – it seems critically important to understand and weigh cultural and environmental impacts of proposed dams. Ethiopia, focused on the profits of selling hydro-electricity to neighboring countries, has not seemed to place a high priority on such preliminary processes.

Five years ago, International Rivers explained the impacts of the 5 proposed dams to the original funders (World Bank, USAID, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank) often with NWNL images. In 2010 those donors withdrew their money, citing a lack of due process required by Ethiopia’s Constitution. However, Ethiopia continued with the construction, partially helped by China which has funded the subcontract for turbines and electro-mechanical aspects. During construction of the Gibe III, Ethiopia has been selling the riparian lands that were home to the Omo’s indigenous communities for 6,000 years to foreign commercial agricultural interests and relocating the tribal residents.

Ethiopia predicts that the Gibe III reservoir will start filling around the beginning of 2015. At the June 2014 World Heritage Commission meeting, the Governments of Kenya and Ethiopia promised an “SEIA” (comprehensive enviro-sociological analysis) of the dam and plantations by February 2015. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continues to claim that Turkana will not suffer a drop in water – a claim disputed by many. The Minister of Water in Kenya still doesn’t know how much water the plantations will use, yet Kenya’s government asserts it can work with Ethiopia to protect the lake. No negotiation details have been disclosed as of August 2014, but it is clear that the water extraction from the new commercial agricultural farms of cotton and other highly-water intensive crops in the Omo Valley present a greater threat to Lake Turkana’s water levels than the storage of water by the dam itself.

If the successes and mistakes of history offer lessons, will the world’s watershed stewards and stakeholders learn from what is happening today the Omo Valley? To help raise awareness of the irreparable losses being incurred by the Gibe Dams, NWNL would like to share its Interview with Halewijn Scheuerman conducted in 2008 in the Omo Valley when the reality of the dams began to surface, provoking a look at the values of the watershed and its stakeholders and seeking an answer as to who is responsible for the future of the Omo/Turkana Basin.