Can this baby hold onto its culture?

Ethiopia: Omo River Basin, Kundama Farm, a Duss tribal farming community, a 2-day-old Karo baby with its mother
Ethiopia: Omo River Basin, Kundama Farm, a Duss tribal farming community, a 2-day-old Karo baby with its mother.
© Alison M. Jones for NWNL.

Southwest Ethiopia is arid; but monsoon rains in Omo River highlands have sustained generations of indigenous people downstream. Over many millennia, stable cultural systems have emerged from patterns of interaction with the perennial Omo River. Here, Nyangatom men are fiercely proud; Karo children are playful and creative; Hamar women are strong; swaddled Mursi babies are loved; and Dassanech elders are wise.

Survival in the Omo Valley requires heavy workloads for men and women; but this is counter-balanced by plentiful water, fish and flood nutrients. Using the Omo as a case-study watershed, No Water No Life has documented environmental and cultural impacts of freshwater availability and usage. Men and boys herd livestock down dusty riverbanks for water. Maize, sorghum and beans are planted on inundated riverbanks and plains as annual floods recede. Women and children carry water to nearby villages. Riverside vegetation is collected as fodder for cattle and goats. Grains are winnowed and ground. To escape floods, homes are moved off the river – and returned when it’s time to plant a year’s worth of food on moist banks and floodplains.

These timeworn routines leave little need for the ubiquitous AK-47s handed down from the Derg Regime, other than to recapture stolen cattle or protect crops from marauding monkeys. Reliable resources have fostered creativity and festivity. Villagers paint elaborate patterns of river clay on their bodies. They celebrate successful harvests with dances and rites of passage such as bull jumping.

Annual floods and riverine forests sustain these communities. Omo Valley pastoralists and farmers have never stood in food-aid lines. Even though global climate disruptions threaten cultures elsewhere, the Omo practices of flood-recession agriculture and moving to higher ground during flooding mitigate effects of extreme water-level fluctuations.

It is other pressures that threaten the Omo cultures, cause anxiety and incite anger. Two of five proposed mega-hydro dams have been built upstream on the Gibe River tributary. If the third dam goes online, waters will be held back for two years to fill its reservoir; and thereafter, annual flooding will be ended. The environment and people around Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which is 90% filled by the Omo River, will also be devastated.

A highway to transport Sudanese oil to Kenyan ports will soon cross the Omo River. This will bring truckers’ needs and transient lifestyles into Omo communities, affecting their health and values. Additionally, as global food and cotton prices rise, Ethiopia is giving Omo lands to foreign investors and farmers. This takeover, like the dams, will destroy riverine forests and displace villages.

These irreparable changes are spawning local tensions and resentment over being ignored as development plans progress. Violence is increasing. If the upstream Gibe dams are built, 1-1/2 million people will lose their livelihoods. Guns will soon determine water access rights as river flows are reduced.

Omo cultures could probably survive the incursions of a highway and foreign farming; but hydro-dam reductions of Omo River and Lake Turkana water levels will be too great to overcome. Ethiopia’s government says it will move these people elsewhere. But history suggests people will be resettled in arid lands with few or no wells. No Water No Life interviews with “dam victims” in Canada’s Columbia River and Uganda’s Nile River tell of broken promises and resettlement to barren lands.

No Water No Life is collaborating with groups working to halt the Gibe Dams. American, European and African banks have withdrawn their funding; however China has stepped in. If the dams are built, then the world must hold Ethiopia accountable for guaranteeing these cultures access to clean fresh water and a means of sustaining themselves.

Check out NWNL’s Photo Set “Life in the Omo Valley” on Flickr.

The photograph above was nominated in the ‘People’ category of the Sixth Annual Photography Masters Cup, selected from 8,521 international entries.

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