“After the dam, nothing is good”: How Ethiopia’s mega project devastated centuries of survival strategies

Photo: Jaclynn AshleyAfrican Arguments | 29 May 2024

After the dam, nothing is good”: How Ethiopia’s mega project devastated centuries of survival strategies

by Jaclynn Ashley

Until recently, indigenous groups in the Omo Valley planted crops, foraged, hunted, fished, herded animals, and shared food. Now they face starvation.

Over thousands of seasons across hundreds of years, eight distinct peoples honed their strategies for surviving in the Lower Omo Valley. The dry and often unforgiving conditions in this semi-arid region of southwest Ethiopia would be inhospitable for most, but these groups learnt to adapt to unpredictable rainfall and the ebbs and flows of the Omo River.

These valuable lessons were perfected and passed down through countless generations. Descendants followed in the footsteps of their ancestors, developing rich cultural traditions such as elaborate body painting and stretched lip plates as they went along.

Even as European colonialists imposed their will across the African continent, the Lower Omo Valley and its people remained largely untouched. Tribes continued alternately fishing along the river’s shores, grazing cattle and goats, hunting wild animals, and planting crops in dense forests. They moved around to make the most of the diverse ecosystem that covers plains, riverine forests, and volcanic outcrops. And, most importantly, they took advantage of the nutrient-rich silt left behind by the annual downstream floods that proved perfect for cultivation.

Over centuries, these indigenous groups – who today number 200,000 people – learnt to embrace the rhythms of the Omo Valley.

Until, that is, those rhythms abruptly stopped.

In 2015, the tallest dam in Africa began operating. Located in the middle of the Omo River, the towering 250-metre high Gilgel Gibe III plugged the channel and captured its waters in a reservoir with the capacity of 6 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. With the press of a button, millennia of annual downstream floods ceased.

By this time, the Ethiopian government had also confiscated tens of thousands of hectares of traditional lands to make way for enormous farms that would be irrigated and powered by the new mega hydro project. The Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC) was given huge swathes of the Omo Valley to establish sugarcane plantations and sugar-processing plants, a central part of the national development strategy at the time. Several other expanses were leased to foreign companies.

In the space of years, diverse livelihood strategies that had served indigenous groups for centuries were cut off. Seasonal migratory paths were blocked. Rich ecosystems were cleared for agriculture. The river’s yearly gift of fertile soils ended.

“The river gave us life,” says Toko Rendele, a member of the Daasanach tribe. “The floods would come each year and we could farm easily. Even for the animals, the grass was plenty, and they had a lot to eat…We did everything beside the Omo River, but now the water has decreased and the flooding no longer comes.”

According to Toru Sagawa, an anthropologist, the Daasanach, who number about 70,000 people, used to produce an abundance despite the difficult conditions. In fact, in times of hunger, neighbouring groups would travel to their lands to ask for food, which they would receive in generous quantities and without conditions. Since the dam’s construction, however, it is the Daasanach – whose ability to grow sorghum and herd animals has been devastated – that are going hungry.

“Whereas it was previously the centre of food security in the area, food production in the Daasanach land has drastically changed since large-scale development projects began,” says Sagawa.

Years of failed rainy seasons in the Horn of Africa have not helped. The 2022 drought, which was made 100 times more likely due to climate change, was reported to be the worst in 40 years. Rights groups now warn of a “severe humanitarian crisis” unfolding in the Omo Valley, with people dying of disease and starvation.

Lost strategies

Among the groups badly affected by these developments, one of the hardest hit are the Kwegu. Prior to the dam’s construction, this band of around 2,000 people lived by the Omo River year-round. They grew crops along its banks after the seasonal floods, which they supplemented by fishing, hunting wild game, foraging plants, and harvesting honey.

Today, virtually none of these strategies is viable. Flood retreat agriculture is no longer possible, and the Kwegu say the fish population of the river has depleted. Furthermore, the forest on which they relied has been cleared by a sugar plantation, leading wild game to flee or die due to the loss of habitat. The Kwegu are now hemmed in with the river on one side and the plantation on the other.

“Before the dam, life was good. After the dam, nothing is good,” says Natabo Biterare, a Kwegu elder and chief of his small village. “Life has become very difficult. Many of our children and elders have died because we don’t have enough food to feed them.”

Unlike some surrounding groups, the Kwegu don’t keep cattle so have few resources to trade for grain when times are desperate.

“This means that when they are hungry, they are really, really hungry,” says Lucie Buffavand, a researcher at the African Worlds Institute who has done extensive work in the Omo Valley. “They were a people of the forest, which was destroyed by the plantation.”

Natabo Biterare, a Kwegu elder and chief of his small village, recounts how developments in the Omo Valley reduced his community to ruins. Credit: Jaclynn Ashly.

Another group that has been especially badly affected are the Bodi, who number around 10,000 people. Their story of dispossession goes back to 2004, when the government started moving thousands of migrants from Konso, a town in southwestern Ethiopia, into the Omo Valley as part of a long-standing policy to resettle landless populations. Many of these newcomers expanded into land the Bodi relied on for grazing and cultivation.

When this led to some deadly conflicts, the police responded with a large-scale security operation. They forced the Bodi to register their firearms and carried out sweeping arrests, leading to some harsh prison sentences for alleged “banditry”.

In 2012, matters got worse for the Bodi. The government began clearing dense bushland – which the group would cultivate in the rainy season and where their beehives were located – to make way for sugarcane plantations. For a few years, the Bodi relied heavily on flood retreat agriculture to survive, but this strategy was also decimated when Gibe III dam came into operation and diverted the Omo River’s waters to large-scale irrigation schemes.

Buffavand explains how the Bodi can no longer live off diverse ecological zones – including grasslands, mountainous areas, bushland, and riverbanks – as they once did. “These plantations have impeded their movements,” she says. “There’s constant conflict with the sugarcane workers because when [the Bodi] try to bring their cattle to a cooler area during the dry season, the cattle will eat the sugarcane.”

Gelphile Gyamash, a chief of the Bodi tribe, describes the recent droughts as “the worst time in living memory”. In previous periods of desperation – such as droughts in the 1970s – the Bodi headed to nearby mountains where they could cultivate some crops and forage for roots and wild potatoes. But this option is no longer possible either.

In 2019, the government engaged in a brutal disarmament campaign against the Bodi and the Mursi, another group. Security forces killed dozens of people including women, children, and elders. Without arms, which all the tribes in the Lower Omo Valley use to protect themselves from wild animals and to fend off rivals, it is too dangerous for the Bodi to venture to the mountains, where a rival agriculturalist group resides.

A collapsed vision

As well as displacing indigenous groups from their lands, the government attempted to resettle them in sedentary villages. This was not only at odds with people’s generations-old customs but unworkable given the diverse livelihood strategies necessary to survive in the valley’s challenging microclimate.

“The government has this mindset that people need to become sedentary farmers, which does not work in the plains,” explains Buffavand. “These policies constrained their freedom of movement to rotate around various ecological zones, which people have been doing here for millennia.”

The government villages fell apart within a few years.

The landscape of Natabo Biterare’s village in the Omo Valley. Credit: Jaclynn Ashly.

This was not the only part of the state’s grand vision that misfired. It has also had to massively downscale the size of areas set aside for sugarcane cultivation and reduced planned processing capacity by 60%, according to researchers. Much of the land confiscated from the Bodi and other groups remains uncultivated.

Part of the reason for this is that MetEC, the state-owned industrial conglomerate that managed the sugar plantation in Bodi territory, became embroiled in corruption allegations around the misappropriation of funds in connection to the sugar industry. Many high-level officials were fired and prosecuted. In 2018, MetEC’s sugarcane contracts were terminated. Since then, Chinese corporations have been brought in instead.

Buffavand says the government now wants to privatise the sugar industry. “The factories are not working at full capacity,” she explains. “It appears that some areas have already been leased out to private investors who are cultivating rice.”

Most private investors, however, are largely not interested in the scheme owing to the risks associated with the frequent clashes that erupt between dispossessed indigenous groups and plantation workers.

Facing extinction

A report published last year by the Oakland Institute found that dozens of indigenous people in the Omo Valley have died prematurely in recent years. Many have perished from malnutrition, while deadly diseases – including measles, malaria, chickenpox, leishmania, and cholera – have claimed many more lives.

According to Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, the humanitarian crisis – which has affected the Suri, Nyangatom, and Hamar as well as the groups already named – is “steadily deteriorating”. Sickness caused by the contamination of the waters of the Omo River may also be a threat. Several studies have confirmed that sugarcane cultivation is heavily dependent on chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilisers. Additionally, sugarcane processing plants produce large amounts of runoff that can contain heavy metals and cleaning agents.

Forced to drink from chemical-filled irrigation canals, tribal members now face long-term health risks, including cancers, neurodegenerative disorders, and reproductive harms, according to the Oakland Institute report.

Sera Nyamo, a member of the Daasanch, says children are falling ill more often. “I know the water is what is making them sick,” says the mother of three. “But we have no other source of water. We have no choice but to keep drinking from the river.”

Munte Lugo, a Kwegu mother of seven, says her village has been similarly hit hard by various diseases. “People have developed kidney problems,” she says. “Many people have died from illnesses.”

“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of indigenous people affected, with some facing extinction,” says Mittal. “This has been going on for a decade and it has only gotten worse. Life-sustaining resources are continuously shrinking. Land and water are being given to state developments and private and foreign companies, leaving indigenous people in a horrific situation.”

She says there was some hope in 2018 that the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, would resolve the crisis. But those hopes soon shattered. His administration became embroiled in civil wars and unleashed further violence on indigenous groups in 2019. “The government doesn’t seem to care at all about the state of these people,” says Mittal. “They do nothing for them.”

African Arguments contacted the Ethiopian government for comment but did not receive a response.

In the absence of other means, the Mursi have become increasingly dependent on the tourists that periodically trickle into their villages and offer small payments in exchange for photos of Mursi women donning stretched lip plates. There is a burgeoning cultural tourism industry in the Lower Omo Valley, though the Mursi receive a tiny fraction of the benefits. Most of the industry is controlled by foreigners or Ethiopians from outside the communities.

Most indigenous groups, however, receive almost no tourists. Many are also poorly represented in local administrations and receive scant humanitarian aid.

In a bid to survive, some herders are now travelling further and further to find adequate grazing lands. They have sometimes even had to cross into Kenya’s Lake Turkana region, leading to some deadly conflicts.

“Just yesterday I killed someone around Lake Turkana,” says Yomia Serieyang, a young Daasanach herder. He says it is not the first time he has had deadly confrontations with other tribes who, he says, attempt to steal his cattle. “War has become normal here,” he says, shaking his head.

Gyamash, the Bodi chief, echoes this desperate fighting talk. “These developments have destroyed us,” he says. “If the government or these companies come to take more of our lands then we will declare war. They would have to fight us to death.”

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