Omo River Basin

The Importance of Floods:
Gibe Dams Impacts on the Omo Valley
Interview at Lumale Camp, Omo Valley – 2008


Halewijn Scheuerman: Dutch anthropologist/explorer
Lake Turkana National Parks Honorary Warden
Lower Omo Valley camp manager and resident


Alison Jones: NWNL Director and Lead Photographer

Omo-Turkana Basin

The Omo-Turkana Basin
(Courtesy of International Rivers)

Introductory Notes

A Cascade Of Development This International Rivers video with NWNL imagery outlines how Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams could cause a 70% water-level reduction within 3 years. Their water retention would drastically impact Ethiopia’s Omo River; Kenya’s Lake Turkana; and half a million residents in the Rift Valley’s “Cradle of Humankind.“

These hydro-dams – and new commercial agricultural schemes depending on their water sources – threaten the livelihoods of local indigenous tribes and their ecosystems. The Gibe Dams will also imperil the Omo-Turkana Basin’s migrating birds, fish and crocodile populations, and scant amount of remaining wildlife.

The film pleads that water flows be managed so as to maintain the sustainability of the Omo River, Lake Turkana, and today’s indigenous tribal communities who represent 6000 years of self-sustaining flood-recession farmers and fishermen. For more information on the Omo River, read the Gibe Dam PDF Reports (in the sidebar at left), gathered by NWNL.

NWNL Post-Expedition Comments: Floods rising 60 feet after monsoonal rains have traditionally supplied nutrient-rich silt and irrigation for crops of the Mursi, Suri, Karo, Hamar, Nyangatom, Dassanech and other local, indigenous cultures. Ian Stevenson (former head of African Parks’ project in Omo National Park) described these tribes to NWNL as “highly developed in their society and also incredibly intelligent.” But hydro-dams that stop annual flooding will end the enriching silt deposition and flood-recession agriculture in the Lower Omo Valley. This will dramatically reduce harvests and impair their self-sustaining livelihoods.

The pros and cons of dam-building in the Omo Valley – as in any watershed – should include weighing cultural and environmental impacts. Sadly, Ethiopia minimized such preliminary processes as it focused on the profits of selling hydro-electricity to neighboring countries.

International Rivers, frequently using NWNL images, explained the impacts of the proposed dams to the dams’ original funders (World Bank, USAID, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank). Citing a lack of due process required by Ethiopia’s own Constitution, these funders withdrew their money in 2010.

However, Ethiopia accepted China’s immediate offer to help fund and construct these dams. Since, Ethiopia has encouraged foreign agricultural investors to buy the rich, riparian Omo Valley lands, especially as these new dams would offer year-round irrigation. Now, the Omo’s indigenous communities, having lived and farmed here for 6,000 years, are being relocated.

Halewijn Scheuerman’s thoughts, taped by NWNL in 2008 in the Omo Valley, explain the irreparable losses being incurred by the Gibe Dams. He assesses the values of the watershed and its stakeholders, and considers the reality and consequences of the dams’ impacts.

All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.

Omo Valley’s Cultural History & Natural Heritage

NWNL: What is the value of the Omo River to indigenous Karo farmers?

Halewijn Scheuerman: The Omo river is vital for many, many people. Because it is slow and meandering, the river’s floods deposit [upstream soils carried down from the Gibe River] upon the downstream Lower Omo banks. That silt is very useful to the Karo people of the lower Omo practicing flood-receding agriculture [which produces] successful harvests.

Even when the Omo floods recede, the Omo never dries out. It’s always flowing. It’s a continuous process. It’s a significant river.

After the floods recede and people are sure the river will not come back up, they start planting sorghum, beans and nowadays maize. As the river recedes, they continue planting down the bank. By the time they have reached the lower part of the bank, the upper part is already ripe for harvest. In those times of plenty, people are happy – it’s the time of ceremonies.

[The traditional flood-recession agriculture} allows the Karo to have a healthy diet and to feed their children. And on top of that, [certain years allow them] to have a surplus, which they will sell to people that live on the margin of this valley, like the Hamar with whom they exchange livestock and other commodities. The Hamar are pastoralists and don’t practice flood-receding agriculture, but they use the Omo for watering their cattle.

NWNL: Ethiopia’s Omo River supplies 95% of the volume of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. Can you discuss the importance of the Omo River’s flow to Lake Turkana?

Halewijn Scheuerman: Silt is a problem in many watersheds, but here it benefits the fields every year. It provides food for the fish down in Lake Turkana and to the Turkana Delta’s “cradle fish.” Lake Turkana is a fish producer. When the level of Lake Turkana increases, certain [spawning] areas like Ferguson Bay fill up with the water, and the fish production increases enormously. That is very positive for the fishermen in Lake Turkana. And at certain times of the year, as these fishermen know, all the fish move to the Omo River Delta to feed because it’s a very rich environment.

NWNL: So is that silt critical to both the productivity of this watershed and to human life?

Halewijn Scheuerman: If this river becomes clear water, it will be no use to the Lower Omo people. We know the geological history from those layers we see in Koobi Fora sediments in the Turkana Basin and in certain cliffs along the lower Omo. That silt has been part of this river in immemorial times. Silt has transformed the environment for the better. It helped preserve the beautiful fossils [discovered in Koobi Fora and along the Omo by the Leakey family] that help explain where we came from.

Because of the silt, the Omo Valley is an important geographical place concerning paleontology. It is expected in the future to play a role in more discovery. We can think that we come from here. We belong here. Maybe that’s why I came back to my roots. I came to spawn here, like the salmon.

We have to preserve. The drama of water in the United States is a good example [of what can happen if we don’t preserve.]

In America, you have the Colorado and the Mississippi Rivers harnessed. Every drop is harnessed. The big cities in California and Las Vegas are sucking water from everywhere, and so on and so on. [There, people are] spraying lawns, filling swimming pools, washing cars. Here, we are still natural.

Explaining Today’s Africa to Westerners

NWNL: You were born in Holland, grew up in Spain, and studied in France before you came to Africa. How do all those perspectives influence your thinking today?

Halewijn Scheuerman: For a moment I would like to be the advocate of the devil [and speak as an African to a Westerner]. In Europe, you were able to make iron. You completely shaped your landscape. Now water has disappeared, more or less. Then you went over the big Atlantic and you did exactly the same, harnessing everything. Now you feel guilty. You come to this continent and tell us we cannot follow the same path. That means we have to stay poor. We cannot be privileged like you taking airplanes and all this.

Things you find normal in the Western world and America – you would like Africa not to do it. That’s the big problem, because African leaders are going to [want what you have]. You come in a paternalistic way often, advising and so on and so on – with good intentions, I know. Both sides are very well intended – the Westerners and Africans – but there are things we cannot stop, even when you are well intentioned. It doesn’t work, even in terms of conservation.

NWNL: What’s your opinion of the proposed cascade of five hydro-dams on the Gibe River?

Halewijn Scheuerman: At the end, Africa’s political leaders are the ones who decide. It’s not anymore an international body or colonial power, or so on and so on. I have heard often money is the solution, money. Money is not a solution. It’s not about windowpanes. It’s not about the cleanness of the school classrooms. It’s not about how smart the houses look.

Now, the Omo is healthy. It’s very healthy. The floods are at the moment very dramatic. Everybody has every reason to be happy. Those areas that are flooding are going to be fields for months and months. As those flooded areas recede, they’re going to plant.

The Karo have a lake called Lake Diba, and it fills up and empties depending on the floods of the Omo. It’s been dry for a long time, and now it is back to its full size, full of fish – a lot of Nile perch, and so on. As it recedes, crocodiles will go back to the main Omo and the Karo will start planting. The Karo say, “This is our bank account.”

[Transcription edited for clarity by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director. Our Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.]

NWNL Response To Halewijn – 2014

Halewijn Scheuerman seems to have been right. Ethiopia’s political leaders are the ones who are deciding the future of the Omo Valley. But when the Karo and other Omo communities lose their gift of Omo River floods, the Turkana and other Kenyans will lose the world’s largest desert lake and its fisheries (their main source of protein). These “bank accounts” will be gone for good.

As well, we all will have lost some of the warp and woof of our 6,000-year-old global tapestry. Halewijn rightfully noted the West is just as guilty as Africa of trampling over traditional riparian rights in our economic march forward. We can better assess risks and tread more carefully. The world’s security lies in whether or not we can establish well-considered and balanced approaches to the universal issue of riparian rights.

[Posted by NWNL on Aug. 22, 2014; Revised by NWNL on July 25, 2016]