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Ethiopia’s great thirst for water power threatens survival of tribes

New dam threatens vital water supply of tribespeople.

‘It’s better to kill us first,” Olikoro says, naked apart from a piece of cloth slung over his shoulder. An AK 47 rests by his side as he stares at the Omo river and ­contemplates his stark, ruined future.

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Olikoro, a man from the Mursi tribe, is talking about the Gibe III dam: the latest in a cascade of dams being built on the Omo river in south-west Ethiopia. The river begins its 500-mile journey in Ethiopia’s emerald highlands and drops through steep gorges to a sun-scorched valley before twisting towards the jewel of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

In Addis, Ethiopia’s capital, the dam is seen as essential for progress. But travelling along the river, deep into the Omo valley, one can see how the tribal people depend on the river – and how they dread the impact it will have on the lives of the half a million people.

The Omo valley’s 15 tribes use the river’s seasonal floods to nourish their crops. Each March and September rains fall onto the highlands, causing the Omo river to spill over its banks. It then retreats – ready for the people to return to newly replenished river banks to plant maize and sorghum. Once the dam goes up, the floods will stop. “If the dam is built we will die,” Olikoro says.

Terri Hathaway, from International Rivers, an organisation working to protect rivers and encourage sustainable energy, says when the Ethiopian government began building the dam environmental impact assessment papers – meant to highlight all possible negative impacts – made no mention of the tribal people living downstream.

“The Government has no interest in these people,” says Hathaway. “The fact many of them wander around wearing few clothes is an embarrassment to them.” Many of the tribal people had no idea the dam was even being built until the Sunday Herald told them.

The Mursi tribe (famous for their women’s clay lip plates) are classified as agro-pastoralists by anthropologists: they practice what’s known as flood-retreat and rain-fed agriculture, as well as cattle rearing. Their survival relies on marrying the seasons, the river, their crops and their cattle into one nomadic lifestyle.

“Each one is critical because it supplements the others,” says David Turton, an anthropologist who specialises in Mursi culture. Or as Olikoro says: “You need three stones to put a pot over a fire. It’s no good having two.”

In the Omo valley, however, rain-fed farming is not dependable because the weather is erratic. But floods, which are triggered by the faraway highlands’ heavy rains, always happen – making flood retreat cultivation reliable for food supply. The Mursi have orchestrated their survival mechanisms over thousands of years of living in an unforgiving, drought-prone environment. They understand their environment and are self-reliant in food production. “They don’t rely on food aid,” Turton says.

The Dassenech people, who live in the Omo Delta, further south down the river, are also dependent on the floods. Here the river floods across broad areas, renewing the grass, and providing dry season grazing for their cattle, the tribe’s most precious possession.

But the Ethiopian government says the country needs power if it is going to develop fast – and so dams are being built. The country has few exploitable natural resources, except hydropower, thanks to numerous river basins. Half the power the government plans to produce will be exported to its energy-strapped neighbours, Kenya and Sudan.

“Westerners don’t want to hear about progress in Africa,” says Gail Warden, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government. “Ethiopia’s large-scale development has offered a lot of sticks to wield against the ‘foolish Africans’. Anyone opposed to the dams should suggest alternative solutions to creating vast amounts of energy to feed the fastest growing non-oil economy in Africa.”

It’s hoped Gibe III will solve Ethiopia’s energy crisis allowing it to expand its national grid and bringing an end to industry closures due to power cuts – power shortages have crippled the manufacturing industry recently. Yet the proposed doubling of Ethiopia’s power will only benefit those in the cities. The communities living along the Omo will still have no electricity – as well as facing the obliteration of their way of life.

The Sunday Herald asked Olibisini, a Mursi elder, what this new rush to industrialisation means for him and his people. “We know the power is not for us,” he replies. “We don’t know about electricity,” he says. “But we would prefer the river as usual. We just need food and water.”

Yet the government maintain local tribes will benefit from the dam. “Electricity is essential for rural transformation, providing the basis for businesses in small towns and mechanised agriculture,” says Alemayu Tegenu, of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Energy. “And children need light for studying. We have identified 6,000 rural towns and villages in an ambitious rural electrification plan, penetrating half the country within five years.”

Another argument in support of the dam’s hydropower is that it is clean, renewable energy. Charcoal production and wood collection are enormous problems in Ethiopia, and with a growing population, deforestation is happening at an alarming rate.

Gibe III is a colossal project: designed at 240m in height it will hold back a reservoir 150km long, retaining 14 billion cubic metres of water, making it one of the world’s largest dams. Costing $1.7 billion, it will be Ethiopia’s biggest infrastructure investment. Gibe I and II have been built; IV and V are coming soon.

Caterina Amicucci, from the Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank, says: ‘With the Government’s development plans resting on Gibe III, it has been rushed through – skipping legal procedures.”

The lucrative contract for building Gibe III was given to Salini, an Italian company, without any competitive bidding – resulting in the World Bank refusing to fund the dam. Transparency International says large public work projects like this one are one of the world’s most corrupt sectors.

Another contravention saw the environmental impact assessment papers only completed two years after building began – and the scientists who completed the assessment were commissioned by the Ethiopian government and Salini.

“With a deal worth nearly two billion dollars this assessment was never going to be objective,” the Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey declares.

“The assessment is deeply flawed, with many omissions and its science is in dispute. It was an inside job to get international funding.”

Dr Tewolde Egziabher of Ethiopia’s Protection Agency is happy with the assessment. “No development can come without some environmental cost,” a spokesman says. “And the dam’s positives outweigh any negatives to the environment.”

Climate change poses a huge risk to the dam’s economic viability, with the chance it may generate less power than hoped or dry up completely.

“Instead of the government bulldozing forwards it would be better to consider alternatives to the dam; other renewable energy projects that are more sustainable against climate change,” says Professor Eric Odada, a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board.

Ethiopia already has a lot of dams and anticipates eventually becoming 95% hydro dependent. Yet this part of Africa has become progressively drier. “Ethiopia is known to be drought-prone so it is ridiculous to focus entirely on water-dependent power,” Leakey says.

However, Alemayu Tegenu, of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Energy, claims: “We are developing Africa’s largest wind farm in the north, and have abundant solar and geothermal potential for which investors are sought.”

But hydro has been subsidised for a long time, whereas the others have not benefited from much government support. “Smaller schemes, such as micro-dams, may not get the same revenue or power as hydro, but they benefit locals,” says Fiona Watson, from Survival International, an organisation supporting tribal people. “But the dam is more about ego and prestige.”

The tribes have already suffered numerous changes in recent years. Missionaries have arrived in droves in and tourists descend in 4x4s. Recently formed national parks squeeze their lands smaller, and the area is being explored for oil. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the Omo valley.

The tribes fight over increasingly scarce water and land – but the dam could plunge them into more serious conflict. The Omo tribes wear guns – which flood over the border from Sudan.

As well as possibly devastating farming in the Omo valley and inflicting social strife the dam will have ecological side-effects. “The riverine forest will die,” says Dr William Ojwang, of Kenya’s Fisheries Research Institute. “And the habitats and spawning of the river’s plentiful fish will be affected.”

Gibe III is more than just a problem in Ethiopia: its effects will also be felt in Kenya. There, Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake and a World Heritage site, is abundant with plants and animals. The River Omo is its main freshwater source. With a reduced flow the lake will dramatically shrink and become saltier, destroying its ecosystem. Turkana, named the cradle of mankind, is an important ancient environment, fertile in fossil remains.

Around 300,000 Kenyans rely on the lake for their livelihoods. As evening draws in the lake is full of fishermen returning in their hand-carved boats, with Tilapia, Nile Perch and Catfish.

The Ethiopian Government maintains the dam will restore the lake rather than deplete it. It claims it will fix the problem by creating an annual 10-day artificial flood, making the floods “more predictable” – which they claim will benefit the people. Academics, however, doubt this. “The natural flood builds slowly – rising and falling over several months, depositing nutritious silt all the time and letting the moisture sink in deep,” says anthropologist Turton. “It’s difficult to believe that 10 days will be enough.”

The Government will want to maximise electricity after the huge cost to build the dam – and releasing water means reducing power. “They will probably perform the artificial floods for a few years to keep donors happy and then stop,” Caterina Amicucci, from the Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank says.

Big natural floods are not destructive, contrary to the government’s insistence – instead the water spreads far, sorghum ripens and grain ends up in storage. Ashote, a Dassenech man, says: “The river is life-giving not taking. Big floods are celebrated. We just move to higher land when the floods come.”

Extreme floods are not common. Only one has happened in the last

50 years in 2006. “The casualties reported have been exaggerated,” Marco Bassi, an Oxford University anthropologist, says.

The last flood was not big. The Sunday Herald arrived during harvest time, and cultivation sites along the Omo lay empty. Some blame the other Gibe dams, others climate change and poor rainfall. Whatever the reason a drought is settling over the land and hardship is on the way.

Many Omo people are hungry: they are relying on their cows, either selling them to buy grain or living on drained blood mixed with milk. “What you see is the result of a low flood; a foretaste of what is to come if the dam is constructed,” says dam-expert Will Tate. “In the future there will be starvation, economic loss and death.”

As the Government insists the dam will have little negative effect on the people proper compensation is not needed. Ethiopia’s leaders say a small percentage of the dam’s profits will go to downstream tribal people but give no clear details. Irrigation schemes are one proposal mentioned – a fact which makes Shoro laugh. Shoro is a Kara, the most endangered of the Omo tribes with just 2000 people. “We have so much experience of the Government promising us things but we never see them,” she says.

Food aid is also promised. “We don’t want relief, we want food made from our own hands,” Shoro continues.

The dam comes with a double blow to local people. Big commercial farms – growing lettuces, oil palm and bio fuel – will follow in its wake, once the floods are under control: taking more tribal land. Ethiopia’s government is selling big chunks of land to foreign investors and south Omo is highly prized.

Ethiopia, a country remembered for famine, seems an unlikely hotbed for agricultural investment but the rich yet resource deprived Middle East is seeking new places to grow food and land is cheap and abundant in Ethiopia.

Moving from subsistence to commercial farming is, however, another key part of the country’s development strategy, with hopes of improved roads and new jobs. “The redistribution of the river’s flow throughout the year will enable irrigated agriculture,” a Salini spokesperson said.

With the dam’s promises of progress political expectations are riding high on it. “Power comes from controlling water,” Caterina Amicucci says. The historic conflict over Egypt’s monopoly of the Nile means many Ethiopians feel they should not be denied the use of their water again.

The international ramifications are just as big as the crisis on the ground for the Omo people. Critics are busily urging international financial institutions not to fund its completion. The European Investment bank and African Development bank are carrying out new studies on its impact. China, however, is considering funding it.

Richard Leakey remains adamant there is still a chance of stopping the dam’s completion. “If they do not get international funding, they cannot continue.”

However, David Turton, believes there is no terminating the dam. “The crucial thing is for donors to make a condition of real compensation for the people downstream. They should be the main beneficiaries,” he says.

In Loyere village, Dassenech men and women begin returning excitedly from their farms. During harvest time they dance in celebration. Their bodies are painted and feathers plume from their clay-coated hair. The clearing shakes with the rhythms of feet thudding into the tired earth. The only question is: will there be future harvests to dance for once the dam is built and the river is gone?

From Kate Eshelby in the Omo Valley

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