Ethiopian Dam Threatens to Destroy Indigenous Livelihoods and the World’s Largest Desert Lake

Over the last century, the construction of big dams to generate power, supply water and control floods has unleashed a damaging cascade of social and environmental consequences – including the destruction of fisheries, subsistence farmlands, homes and communities.

More than 470 million people around the world are estimated to be suffering from these and other downsides of dams, often with little or no compensation for their lost livelihoods.

Now, another big dam under construction – on the Omo River in Ethiopia – threatens not only the ancient ways of living of some 500,000 tribal peoples in Ethiopia and Kenya, but also Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake.

The Omo traverses the highlands of southern Ethiopia before it empties into the lake in northern Kenya.

The Ethiopian Government views the Gibe III Dam, under construction since 2006 and now about half complete, as essential to its drive for economic development.  In addition to generating electricity for domestic use and export to neighboring Kenya, the dam will supply water to vast agro-industrial schemes, including plantations of sugar cane for biofuels production.

But without attention to the peoples, wildlife and ecosystems affected by this massive project, the cost of progress may be far too great, according to a study released this week by International Rivers, an environmental and human rights organization based in Berkeley, California.

If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam and moves ahead with large-scale irrigation in the lower Omo Basin, “the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana,” says the report, written by a natural scientist with many years of field experience in the region who wishes to remain anonymous.

Numerous indigenous peoples, including those of the Bodi, Karo, Kwegu, and Mursi tribes, rely on the natural flood cycles of the Omo for their sustainable practices of flood-recession farming, fishing and livestock grazing.  Like generations of their forebears, they plant sorghum, maize and beans in the riverside soils after the yearly flood, relying on the moisture and nutrient-rich sediment the Omo deposits each year.

That cycle of flooding will disappear if the dam is completed, because the river’s natural rhythms will be replaced by flows regulated to optimize the production of hydropower and to deliver irrigation water to industrial-scale farms.

“When we talk about the Omo River we are talking about our life,” said the chief of the Karo people to Mark Angelo, chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.  “The Omo River is everything to us.  But we don’t have a say.” (Read Angelo’s article and see the video here.)

The lower Omo Valley is also the last unspoiled biodiversity hot spot in southwestern Ethiopia and an area crucial for elephant and other large mammal migrations. Harm to wildlife from the dam-based schemes could be substantial, since among the areas slated for large-scale plantation-style agriculture is a sizeable portion of the Omo-Tama-Mago complex of protected areas, Ethiopia’s most important wildlife territory.

A girl uses a net to catch fish in East Africa's Lake Turkana, a main source of protein for local people. Photo by Jane Baldwin.

Lake Turkana, situated at the northern end of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and one of the oldest lakes on Earth, could shrink dramatically if Gibe III is completed. The lake currently receives nearly 90 percent of its inflow from the Omo.  Without the river’s yearly supply, Lake Turkana would steadily lose water, because evaporation would no longer be balanced by inflows. Each year, about 7 percent of the lake’s total volume evaporates under the hot desert sun.

Between the Omo water stored in the Gibe III Dam’s reservoir and diverted to the large irrigated plantation schemes now under development in the lower Omo Valley, the level of Lake Turkana could drop by as much as 22 meters (72 feet), according to the study.  Given that the lake’s average depth is 30 meters, such a drop would alter its ecology, salinity and habitat immensely.

Indeed, the devastation to the lake’s ecology and fisheries could rival that of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has lost more than 80 percent of its volume of water through excessive diversions of the two rivers that flow into it.

Gibe III, expected to cost about $2 billion (which is likely an underestimate, given the history of dam cost-overruns), is a public–private partnership between the state-run Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and the Italian engineering firm Salini Costruttori.

International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a thorough and scientifically sound assessment of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, as well as a plan to ensure the lake does not collapse ecologically.

As for the Omo, the government earlier proposed to mitigate the effects of the dam with a “controlled” flood, executed by releasing water from the dam’s reservoir for ten days.  The idea would be to mimic the Omo’s historic natural flood, which is so important to the indigenous peoples’ livelihoods.

However, an independent review of the Gibe III project, commissioned by the European Investment Bank, determined that the planned artificial flood had not been adequately studied to determine its effectiveness. But given the rapid growth of irrigation in the basin, it is likely the dam would not be managed to maintain ecosystem functions. As the new report states, “The designation of Omo riverbank lands for industrial agriculture immediately makes clear that artificial floods for ecological benefits will not be released as proposed, since these would harm the estates.”

Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest nations.  There is no begrudging its quest for economic advancement.

But there are alternatives to grabbing land and water from indigenous tribes who have lived and farmed sustainably in the region for hundreds of years, and to destroying so much of the country’s natural and cultural heritage for the sake of export-oriented agriculture that will do little to improve the lives of the very poor.

The government should halt the development of Gibe III until its full social, political and ecological ramifications are understood, and until the principles set forth by the World Commission on Dams for dam project assessment and compensation are fully taken into account.

*Note: I joined fifteen other scientists, including Richard Leakey of the Turkana Basin Institute, David Turton of Oxford University’s African Studies Centre, Kate Showers of the University of Sussex, and Eric Odada of the University of Nairobi, in endorsing this study.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Ethiopia

    What abt US and China’s carbon Emission ?

  • Abajifar

    This is purely a cry of the crow, not a mans’ deductin.

  • yayo

    Just leave us alone and fix your sh*t!

  • Hoze

    What a farce and you keep saying if Ethiopia completes the dam as if it is an impossible task , this shows how disconnected you are on the facts on the ground. The dam will be completed by the end of this year. Your concern of the indigenous peoples, including those of the Bodi, Karo, Kwegu, and Mursi tribes, go and see they have started for the first time to go to school and have health care and will the first to benefit by being employed by the sugar factories which are under construction on the bank of OMO river. The only thing you will soon miss is you taking picture of these humble people for your twisted pleasure.

  • Tamru

    Sandra postel,you can go to hell if you dont like the dam ! You or the people behind you are in no position to dictate what sovereign Ethiopia can do or not, thanks God. As discredited as you people are including the international institutions you control in your position i would have shut the stinking mouth and would have rather worried about compensating the natives of North America and Australia whom you wiped out mostly but the remaining as you know are raising demands.

  • Lies

    i am sure you mean well, but you seem to ignore the fact that the life these indigenous people leave must change. They leave in a world with no school , hospital or roads, which are essential to guarantee their survival, which in turn will change their lives forever. so whether this dam is built or not their life must/will change.

  • werner2010

    @Alison M Jones,
    your phrase says it all: “camels to replace cows”
    no, no, no, and again no. Africans, like any human being, have the right to aspire for full access to the benefites of civilization. You All you want is to preserve the photo motives for your next safari trip. What Africans dream of is a descent life with access to clean water, electricity, railway lines, hospitals, schools etc.; if not for themselves, at least for their grandchildren. Is that so difficult to understand?
    You are trying to tell us China is the new evil empire. But China is delivering infrastructure, knowledge transfer and fair price for raw material and products from Africa. You had at least 50 years to prove to Africans your good intentions. But you rather chose to collaborate with the apartheid regime in South Africa or with butchers like Mobutu and Bokassa.
    read the book by Dembisa Moyo: Winner take all.

  • Tesfa

    @sandra thanks for your concerns. but do you think Ethiopia does not have experts in the fields of environment & biodiversity? We do have! We know our problems and solutions than anybody else! We care for our people, water, soil, tree, etc….
    so just leave us alone!

  • Tilaye

    I am an Ethiopian and I know, from first hand experience, the negative effects of not having access to electricity, particulalrly on education. As a child, I saw my elders studying under street electric power poles, because, in those days, many households could not afford to pay for electricity. Most importantly, the supply and distribution of power wasn’t adequate, and it favored rich and well to do neighborhoods.

    Rural areas had very little access; if any. I vividly remember how people from rural areas, visiting their relatives in town, used to be amazed by the power of small light bulbs lighting a big room. In those days, a man from a rural area after having seen street lights for the first time said something like the flowing: ‘with these bulbs producing such amazing light and relaying it from one bulb to another, the King’s towns remain bright at night, like they do under the sun. I believe, the power that will be generated from the Omo dam will provide electricity to ordinary Ethiopians who otherwise cannot have access to the kind of bright light mentioned-above. In my view, no Ethiopian should be denied of enjoying access to hydroppwer generated light; delivered by harnessing one of Ethiopia’s rivers. In this regard, environmental and socio-economic considerations alone cannot justify the halting of an important power development project.

    I wouldn’t like to see a generation of Ethiopians lacking access to electric power, because of the biased argument against constructing a dam on the Omo River. I belive the environmental and socio-economic impacts can be addressed by putting in place tested systems and mechnaisms that have worked elsewhere.

    Understanding Ethiopia’s legetimate need for generating more hydropower, accepting and supporting the tools and instruements the country puts in place to mitigate the potential harmful effects of its growth and development endeavors need to be in the interest of any person or organisation committed to enhancing the lives of people wherewver they may live.

    Given the high level of poverty in the country, asking Ethiopia to halt or delay the construction of the dam on the Omo River is tantamount to calling the country to delay economic growth and thus development.

    As for the number of people that can be potentially affected in Ethiopia and Kenya due to the construction of the dam, reports show that environmental and socio-economic effects of the dam have been taken into consideration. There is, therefore, no need for environmental and socio-econimic alarmism as described in the article. I am not denying the potential negative impact of the dam on people and their environment. What I am not accepting is the declaration and alarmist view that people living along the banks of the Omo and downstream will be disadvantaged as result of constructing the dam. What is most worrying is the focus of the article on the traditional way of life the people of Omo have maintained over the years. While maintaining culture and tradition is important, it need not be at the cost a country’s aspirations to improve its citizens’ standard of life.

    Ethiopia’s population has reached more that 80 million and the need for energy will continue to grow in addition to the energy that will be needed for boosting industrial growth. If Ethiopia cannot use its water resources for the betterment of its people through improving access to income and improving livelihoods, what will be the future of a growing number of young people living in rural and urban areas? Ethiopia is known as the water tower of Africa. If this important resources isn’t wisely used to create a towering economic growth powerhouse, what will be the benefit that will accrue to the people of the country from having a huge quantity of water?

    As for the effect of the dam on Lake Turkana, the Government of Kenya has agreed to import electricity form Ethiopia, which will be generated by the turbines that will be installed on the Omo dam. So, whose interest is being reflected in such articles and blogs callling for cessation of construction activities?

    I believe the future of economic growth in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa will to a certain extent depend on sustainable use of natural resources, including water, without the impediments of unwarranted environmental and socio-economic considerations that do not have the merit of being compared with the future of millions of Africans.

    Anyone genuinely interested in seeing Ethiopians to be uplifted out of poverty, would support infrastructure development endeavors, which are key to boost economic growth which in turn will bring lasting improvements in the lives of many Ethiopians.

    Last, but not least, I am not promoting blind patriotism, but pragmatism from a development perspective.

  • teddy

    I read the article twice but i don’t get the negativity of the comment hear. The author I think is trying to echo the environmental concern associated with such kind of project and It is true this sort of project had a significant negative impact. As an environmental engineer my self I see the problems quite clearly and I think the tyranny style of our government is able to silence the voice of environmental expert and concerned citizen. If the concern is just why a white women is rising this concern then the answer is because the govt successfully silenced the expert. Believe it or not the experience from the construction big dams all over the world indicate the indigenous people to be ignored, environment and ecosystem to be put in an extreme pressure to the point of no return and the nation who built them to be left in a big debt .

    I see why the readers are upset but echoing the concern is the authors responsibility. I know most of u who had commented on this blog have some association to the govt since internet access is a previlage in that nation but try to be logical, echoing a concern is the foundation of democracy and a check and balance to those on power and I am the keeper of my brother and sisters has to be the foundation of this era Globalization.

    so kidus sandra for raising the concern and I hope someone else will suggest the solution rather than attacking you.

    good luck

  • Abera hailu

    There is a great saying in Ethiopia our elders say that ” The Camel keeps its journey while the doges are barking” you guyes keepon barking it is your right to do so we gonna the buield other dam again . you are our enemies we don’t stop in the devopment of our old enough historical and great country. shut-up your mouth pseudo-enviromentalist. such like you are our development enemies ‘pest’.

  • Abera hailu

    There is a great saying in Ethiopia our elders say that ” The Camel keeps its journey while the doges are barking” you guyes keepon barking it is your right to do so we gonna the buield other dam again . you are our enemies we don’t stop in the devopment of our old enough historical and great country. shut-up your mouth pseudo-enviromentalist. such like you are our development enemies ‘pest’.
    what may come we don’t stop !

  • Yihunegn Mezgebu

    We never cease our construction of the dams. what ever u say due to u’r pessimist looking to our countries. Our elders say ‘the ape did not see her own bold ass but loughs with another apes ass’ so, u should see what u r working first…LONG LIVE TO OUR BELOVED MOTHER LAND ETHIOPIA….GOD DAMEN HER ENEMIES,..

  • Fikru

    “We want our people to
    have a modern life and won’t allow
    [them] to be a case study of ancient
    living for scientists and

  • iu

    Talking about problems does not change people mind. When you write an article come up also with a possible alternative. For countries like Ethiopia which are on development, they required huge amount of source of electricity. The possibilities are then nuclear power, natural gas, coal, oil and hydro power. Which one do you think is sensible for Ethiopia? Consider also the availability of the resources required in the country. I am sure from environmental point of view you will disqualify most of them immediately. As electrical engineer, hydro could be the less evil to environment compared to many other major energy sources. I hope you know about the treat of nuclear power for humanity. And do you know fossil fuel (Coal, oil & gas) is the major source of electricity in the world and it is the most deadly energy source for our global environment? If some one worries about environment, my suggestion is to start from these plants than the hydros. By the way, just as a reminder, hyrdros are among the renewable energy sources.

    My argument is not to say we should not care about the environment. For your information Ethiopia is one of the forerunner in supporting green development. Besides the hydros Ethiopia is also investing on available renewable energy such as wind and solar. But these sources never support large development.

    So what could be sensible development from your point of view with respect to the high demand of electricity in Ethiopia? Again consider the resources or the capacity the country has in your comments.

    About my writings, I can flood you with references if you want but I hope it won’t be difficult to google them 🙂

  • Crocus

    Reading these comments, I feel that comments have been overly ad hominem than I like. I think we should not loose sight of Sandra’s concern, which is valid. I for one believe that she argues a genuine cause. The needs of the indigenous population need to be addressed. Never attribute her concern to malice. However, I also understand why Ethiopians are irate. Westerners are clueless. What is written and propagated in the media about Africa is nauseating. Africa is not poor, just underdeveloped. God forbid the West looses Africa’s resources. I for one cannot imagine some western economies being able to survive without [the exploitation of] Africa. I repeat, what Africa has not achieved is development. It is why articles like this grate a sore nerve. All these environmental babbles irk people. No one is more proud of Ethiopia’s beauty or heritage than Ethiopians themselves. (Again, Westerners have no clue.) And they like to preserve that beauty as much as possible. And I am confident they will, now that there is a lot more awareness of environmental issues.

    That said, people find this mindless pontification from the do-good westerners disingenuous. the article lost credibility the moment it cited International Rivers. I have not seen that Berkeley organization reverse the effects of the Hetch Hetchy Dam and restore Yosemite National Park, which “experts” argue can be done without much disruption to the urban area its committed. More importantly, International Rivers comes across as a Trojan Horse. At least that is how it is perceived among Ethiopians. Its mantra is nothing more than “do not build dams on the Nile, one the Gibe… etc.. ” Who funds the organization? Why has it been unwilling to disclose its funders and its tax filings? For all we know, it may be financed by rich Arabs in the Nile Delta. If so, it can crow all it can, but that does not make it credible. Just a Trojan Horse.

    Ethiopians have every reason to be livid at all the condescending babble. They have run out of patience. For six decades, the World Bank blocked any funding of dam projects in Ethiopia. People have a long memory, going back to the colonial era, over 100 years ago when the British colonial system wanted free water to the Nile Delta so it can keep English cotton mills running. Guess what: the credibility was lost then. (And Ethiopia was not a colony, and was not bound by any treaty to which it was not a party.) Lake Turkana is the concern of Ethiopians. And I trust Ethiopians will do the right thing and the lake thrives for ever as it has in the past. It is premature to draw comparison with Lake Aral.

    Take stock. Articles like this talk about the plight of the Omo tribes, and express concern for Lake Turkana. They wax empathy for the Egyptians. But a deafening silence on the interest of the Ethiopians. Where is the balance?

  • Berhane G/yesus

    In my opinion Ethiopia Is known for the past by poverty, civil war and instability but now a days this become minimized or disband it and government starts projects for the benefit of people and take measures to eradicate the people’s from poverty as much as possible. In the way, government is concerned to keep the environment in sustainable way and also a mandatory to do such thing.So why see it from negative side only and we don’t listen from our neighbor Kenya in first hand information because of concern her much than other out lookers?That is my personal question?

  • Yordanos

    Well it seems to me you guys are pissed you are not consulted when those projects are planned well sadly thjose days are over we know how you operate we are over u we are doing things from our prespective now , its amaizing how u tried to use “the local population” AKA us Ethiopians for your analyisis even our neigbours look we are on to you find other way to disturb our peace OK !! this is so ancient

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