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Omo River dam threatens traditional farming and culture in Ethiopia

An ancient way of life that sustains 200,000 people will be lost if the Ethiopian Government can find the money to build a big new hydroelectric dam on the Omo River. This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.  By Mark Angelo This past week, I returned from...

An ancient way of life that sustains 200,000 people will be lost if the Ethiopian Government can find the money to build a big new hydroelectric dam on the Omo River.

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. 

By Mark Angelo

This past week, I returned from a remarkable trip along the Omo River in the remote south-western region of Ethiopia. Traveling through this amazing country, you quickly realize that many North Americans have a pre-conceived image of Ethiopia; one that’s molded by frequent news stories about drought and hunger along with the crushing poverty that exists in some places.

But while these remain serious issues (particularly in the country’s north), Ethiopia is also a land with an intriguing history, many diverse and unique landscapes, and stunning, centuries-old monuments.

The country’s south-western sector, bisected by the Omo River, is also widely known as one of Africa’s most unique and intact cultural landscapes.


Photo courtesy of Mark Angelo

The various ethnic groups that reside along the Omo were generally shielded from the outside world by rugged mountains and seemingly endless savannah. Their isolation was further extended by Ethiopia’s unique status as one of only two African nations never to be colonized by Europeans.

In the absence of significant external influences, the various tribes of the Omo carried on with their customs and traditions, migrating by season and occasionally fighting with each other.

Yet, while the indigenous groups of the area remain distinct and disparate, they also share a rich, symbolic culture, often expressed through body art and adornment. This is a way of life that has long since vanished from most of the continent, but glimmers of this “historical Africa” are still found here.



Africa’s Last Frontier
Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is still a place ruled by ritual and revenge. But change is coming, from upriver

Article, photos and more from National Geographic Magazine (March, 2010)


To many of the tribes along the lower Omo, livestock is the embodiment of wealth and prestige. Yet their livelihood is dependent on planting crops of sorghum, maize and beans using what’s known as “flood-retreat agriculture.” This type of farming is dependent on the annual flooding cycle which deposits a layer of nutrient-rich silt beside the river, making the land productive for another year.

Tribes such as the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi and Nyangatom have farmed this way for generations and their culture revolves around the natural pulsations of the Omo.

But unbeknown to many who live here, there is significant change in the wind–and it’s coming from upriver.

The annual rise and fall of the Omo waters is, in effect, the ancient heartbeat of the valley that has dictated the economic and social values of the almost 200,000 tribal members dependent on farming the river’s banks. All this will change dramatically in the coming years due to the construction of the massive Gibe 3 hydroelectric dam, located a few hundred kilometers upriver.

Omo Basin Area map.jpg

Map of Omo Basin courtesy of International Rivers. Download the International Rivers fact sheet about Ethiopia’s proposed Gibe 3 Dam (pdf) 

Once the dam is completed in 2012, the seasonal flows of the river will be dictated by electricity production for distant urban centers and export. Resulting downstream flows will become much more uniform, making flood-retreat agriculture impractical. Water volume is also expected to be permanently reduced due to seepage and evaporation losses from the 150-kilometer [93-mile]-long reservoir.

Understandably, there’s growing concern that, if the dam reigns in the seasonal flooding cycle, the traditional way of life along with the cultural identity of several tribes will be severely impacted. Potential repercussions could range from food shortages to increased episodes of tribal conflict and displacement. There’s also increasing anger over a lack of communication, consultation and mitigation; something that should be addressed to a much greater degree.

This was passionately stated in a poignant interview I did with the chief of the Karo people that’s included in the following video clip:


The Ethiopian government is still seeking supporters to finance the final stages of the dam. On an encouraging note, the European Investment Bank withdrew its financial support for the project last month, citing the concerns raised above.

If and when an additional financiers are found, I’m hoping they’ll insist on fully addressing the issues raised by local indigenous cultures as a precondition to any future support. At the very least, I think we owe that to the people of the Omo.


Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and an internationally acclaimed river conservationist. He has received the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor, in recognition of his river conservation efforts both at home and abroad. He received the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water Science, Education and Conservation Award, the Order of British Columbia, the National River Conservation Award, and an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University. He is a Fellow International of the Explorers Club. Angelo is the chair and founder of World Rivers Day, an event celebrated across dozens of countries on the last Sunday of each September. He has traveled on and along close to 1,000 rivers around the world over the past 5 decades. He has authored numerous articles and papers about rivers and his expeditions, including the Riverworld presentation launched in concert with National Geographic Online in 2003 and shown to audiences across North America.

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From Mark Angelo

Another key point to make is the fact that plans to construct this dam have gone forward in the absence of any significant communication, consultation or mitigation efforts relating to indigenous communities.

Most of the tribes along the lower Omo feel as if they’ve been shut out of the process and yet, they’re the ones that will be most impacted.

If the dam continues to move ahead in the absence of significant engagement with indigenous communities, the end result could well be increased hunger, displacement, and tribal conflict over what little productive agricultural land that remains.

From Luel Haile

It is sad news for Ethiopians one big man writes this article!

It seems normal and exciting event when conflict happens among people of the same country, because you are dictating us like this “In the absence of significant external influences, the various tribes of the Omo carried on with their customs and traditions, migrating by season and occasionally fighting with each other.” 

Occasionally fighting is not normal, though. Not only this one EIB withdrawal is good news for you. But We Ethiopians will make it with out any external funds. The worst thing is it will not be finished in 2012, but some time after that.

This is a useless idea. What could be better is to make a public debate with those who support the project, and the government of Ethiopia. And if you can, the whole society. Ethiopia is for all Ethiopians.

Many thanks for reading my comment.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn