General Characteristics of the
Omo River Basin

By Alison M. Jones, NWNL Project Director


THE Omo River, flowing 621 miles from Ethiopia’s Shewan Highlands to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, creates an inland drainage basin of about 56,371 square miles. It is a lifeline for half a million people with little political power but who have been completely self-sustaining for 6000 years, due to their practice of flood-recession agriculture. Unlike others in the arid regions of southern Ethiopia, the Omo River Valley tribes have not needed any food aid during long drought periods, due to the grains grown following the months of annual floods. But these people may soon be standing in those food-aid lines if a proposed cascade of massive hydro-dams is built on the Gibe River upstream tributary.

Tributaries

  • Gibe River
  • Gojeb River
  • Mago River
  • Wabi River

The Gibe III Dam in particular will both control the Omo River so there is no flood cycle and dramatically lower the water levels of its inland terminus Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. The Omo Valley communities will no longer be able to be self-sustaining. In conjunction with the dam plans, there have been plans for constructing a new highway that would cross the Omo River from Sudan to Kenya; but that failed as the bridge collapsed before open due to poor construction. However, in anticipation of the dam’s water storage and flow regulation, large-scale irrigation projects are being undertaken which significantly further reduce the flow of the Omo and push the indigenous tribes off the banks of the Omo River.

Map of Omo River Basin

Click map for larger view.

The consequences of these projects include increased immigration of foreign populations taking over the homeland of indigenous tribes as commercial agricultural schemes are put in place, and over-extraction of the Omo’s fresh water resource, negatively impacting basin cultures and riverine, deltaic and lake ecosystems.

No Water No Life has conducted three expeditions to the Omo River in Ethiopia and two to its terminus Lake Turkana in Kenya this decade. Our still and video imagery has captured the values of the sinuous Omo River, bending back on itself again and again, and the contrast of the barren dry scrubland east of Omo’s banks up to the Hamar Mountains. Our aerial perspective makes it clear that any agriculture must be delegated either to the Omo riverbanks or the mountains. No Water No Life interviews of stewards and stakeholders in this watershed tell the story of the past, present and future of this UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Mankind.

No Water No Life has shared its expedition and research results via its this website, E-newsletters, social media posts, lectures to adult and student audiences and exhibits. As well, No Water No Life has coordinated and shared its resulting imagery and fact-finding with other international and local stewardship and advocacy organizations, notably The Friends of Lake Turkana, based in Kenya, and International Rivers, based in USA. Research that guide our project’s documentation include books, news reports, scientific papers and a week spent at Ethiopia’s Water Institute of the Addis Ababa University in Arba Minch interviewing Dean Abebe Sine and other professors there.

Aerial photo of construction of the third Gibe River dam being built in the Upper Omo River Basin. © Alison M. Jones for NWNL

No Water No Life Founding Director and lead photographer Alison M. Jones led these Omo River Basin expeditions and was supported by other photographers accompanying her. Travel was by boat, 4WD vehicles and chartered planes in order to obtain footage of the Gibe III Dam construction since on-the-ground access is completely denied. Temperatures were extremely hot (ranging up to 115°F) and humid, especially during the January ’08 dry-season expedition to the lower Omo River and its Delta. Accommodations were in tents and communications were only possible via SAT phones.

There were many obstacles to be overcome or endured. The director, Alison Jones, contracted malaria and African tick bite fever simultaneously and, on a later expedition, systemic skin rashes from insect bites. Some of the tribal villages were less than welcoming. One year, several tribal groups were at war for revenge of killings over cattle-grazing lands, and thus certain destinations could not be visited. Electricity resources were scarce, which made charging batteries for camera and computers for downloading imagery difficult. Camera equipment was once stolen from our boat, although a guide had been paid to watch over it.

Despite all that, the efforts to save this piece of raw Africa, one of the last regions with such intact traditional tribal cultures, have certainly been worthwhile. International Rivers, gathering research and imagery from No Water No Life and other sources, succeeded in convincing the original bank funders to withdraw their loans. USAID, the World Bank, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank all agreed that since there had been no environmental or cultural impact studies prior to construction of these Gibe Dams that they would not go forward with their loans to Ethiopia. This truly seemed a David and Goliath victory. However it was short-lived, as 10 days later the Chinese announced they would fund and build the dams.

So the challenge continues. No Water No Life most recently documented the Omo’s terminus, Lake Turkana, in January 2013. There the associate director of Friends of Lake Turkana escorted NWNL to farms, tributaries and fishing villages that exemplified local lifestyles. We witnessed the importance of fisheries and the harsh environmental conditions in the arid Turkana Basin. We listened to the growing concerns among local chiefs and fishermen in Beach Management Groups that if the lake is lowered by dams and commercial agriculture, these critical fisheries will be killed forever. The success of No Water No Life in documenting the Omo River and Lake Turkana Basins is largely due to the support and partnership with International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana.