A Dam Brings Food Insecurity to Indigenous People

By Patricia Baquero

Along its 760-kilometer course, from the Shewan highlands in southern Ethiopia, down to Lake Turkana in Kenya, the Omo River supports half a million Indigenous People from more than two dozen different tribes, including the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi, Elmolo, Gabbra, Rendille and Hamar in the Lower Omo valley and around Lake Turkana. For generations, the Indigenous People have farmed sorghum, maize and beans along the lower Omo and around Lake Turkana region, depending on the annual flooding cycle of the river. The natural ebb and flow of the Omo River provides water for agriculture, livestock, and fishing.

The Gibe III Dam, currently under construction, could exacerbate water scarcity and conflicts in the region. (Photo credit: Mark Angelo)

But since the 1970s, droughts have increased in frequency and length, bringing famine and displacing thousands of people. Water scarcity and conflicts over water resources are also likely to worsen when the Gibe III Dam project finishes in 2012. The dam is situated about 300 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa with a capacity of 1,870 MW, and can provide power to 400 million people. Ethiopia is among the countries with the lowest rates of electricity—currently, only 15 percent of Ethiopians have access to electricity, and this access is mainly in cities.

But the dam potentially threatens the lives of the Indigenous farmers and fishers from the Omo-Turkana region. According to the African Resources Working Group (ARWG), the Gibe III dam will reduce the lake’s depth by about seven to ten meters in its first five years, adding to the effects of climate change, which has likely reduced the depth by about five to eight meters already. The dam will disturb the natural flooding cycle of the Omo River, eliminating the seasonal floods and the nutrients deposited along the river.

Artificial flooding from the dam will last 10 days, replacing the natural gradual flood which usually lasts for several months. The International Rivers organization states that the artificial flood will be incapable of reaching all the areas that the natural annual flood feeds and will not support the current agricultural and fishing productivity.

According to the project’s Public Consultation and Disclosure Plan, only 93 members from four Indigenous communities were consulted from around 500,000 affected Indigenous People located downstream of the dam, and it occurred after construction of the dam had already begun. The Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) are not accessible for the majority of the affected people and are not even in the languages spoken by them, violating domestic laws and international agreements that require consultation among the affected people, allowing them to give free, prior, and informed consent to developments and the use of their land and other resources.

Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT), a Kenyan organization representing Indigenous groups in northwestern Kenya, is carrying out a campaign to highlight the potentially harmful consequences to biodiversity, livelihoods and food security that the Gibe III dam would cause to the lake and its ecosystem, to the Kenyan public, legislators, diplomatic missions, donor agencies, and development partners.

Although the dam constructors promise benefits, including electricity, for citizens, the cost to the Indigenous People and the environment might be too high a price to pay.

What do you think? Should the construction of this dam continue even if it is bringing electricity to some at a cost to others? Let us know in the comments!

Patricia Baquero is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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