HydroDam Threats to Omo & Turkana Tribes

A NextGen Blog post by Marianne Swan, State University of New York, Oneonta.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts our student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions

A recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security. Read her earlier NWNL posts, Wildfires & Water,  New York’s Onondaga Lake and Environmental Personhood.

For half a million Indigenous Peoples in the Omo-Turkana River Basin, time is of the essence. The Omo River runs through Ethiopia and terminates in Kenya’s brackish Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world.[mfn]Ojwang W.O., et al[/mfn] The 55,000 square mile watershed bears historic significance for our species: ancient tools and hominin (human ancestor) fossils abound along the shores of the Omo River and Lake Turkana.[mfn]Britannica[/mfn] For 6,000 years, a swath of agro-pastoralist tribes has lived in this region due to its immediate access to water; but now their way of life is under siege. The Ethiopian government’s hydropower and commercial agriculture initiatives are forcing these Indigenous communities to relocate. Those who stay must contend with compromised food and water security.[mfn]Avery, Sean[/mfn]

The tribes in the Omo-Turkana Basin are individually unique. Fifty-two linguistic groups exist in total. Within the Lower Omo River region alone, there are eight distinct tribes.[mfn]Avery, Sean[/mfn] Through centuries of living in a harsh, semi-arid climate, these tribes have almost always cooperatively managed their fisheries, game populations, grazing areas and fertile floodplains.[mfn] Survival International[/mfn]

Three generations of a Karo family live on the banks of the Omo River

The Dam’s Impact

Seated on a highland tributary to the Omo River, the Gilgel Gibe III Dam has been in operation since 2015.[mfn]Environmental Justice Atlas[/mfn] It’s the third-largest hydroelectric venture in Africa and demonstrates Ethiopia’s commitment to renewable development. Unfortunately, it’s had disastrous effects on Indigenous communities across the Omo-Turkana Basin.

The dam has greatly minimized the Omo River’s seasonal floods, a critical component of these Indigenous people’s’ traditional flood-retreat agriculture, heavily relied upon by the Karo, Mursi, Nyangatom and Dassenech people who live on the Omo’s shores and its delta.[mfn]Hodbod, Jennifer, et al.[/mfn] The dam’s extreme changes to the river’s natural flow and volume will wither surrounding riparian zones, which tribes like the Hamar and Kewgo rely on for game.[mfn]”The Omo Valley Tribes.”[/mfn] Now, tribes that farmed on the Omo’s flooded banks are unable to self-sufficiently provide food for their populations.

The Dassanech still depend on Lake Turkana for sustenance, despite legal fishing restrictions

The Gibe III dam has made possible large-scale irrigation systems, thus attracting Asian investment in commercial schemes for lucrative, but “thirsty,” crops in the Omo Basin. Incoming, large-scale plantations have overtaken the ancestral lands of tribes like the Suri.[mfn]”The Omo Valley Tribes.”[/mfn] Indigenous Peoples who choose to stay are left working low-paying jobs for foreign enterprises growing “cash crops” like palm oil, cotton and sugarcane, instead of food for the community to eat.[mfn]Hodbod, Jennifer, et al.[/mfn]

Downstream, across the border in Kenya, the dam’s effects could be catastrophic, since Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River, fed by the now-dammed Gibe River. In 2017, two years after the dam began operating, the lake’s always-volatile water level decreased nearly five feet.[mfn]Budgen, Mara[/mfn] The lake constantly loses water to evaporation, making today’s barely-potable water in the lake increasingly saline. This, coupled with the lack of upstream sedimentary nutrients, could significantly reduce Lake Turkana’s biomass.[mfn]Avery, Sean[/mfn] A severe drop in lake levels would leave the shallow beds of juvenile fish “nurseries” high and dry, causing significant drops in the remaining fish populations, already over-fished. As formerly-pastoral residents increasingly turn to the lake for sustenance, its fisheries could collapse entirely.

Accelerating Climate Change

Today’s increased stress on resources will inevitably result in growing competition between tribes. Climate change is predicted to exacerbate the food and water security issues in the region. Expected erratic rains and prolonged droughts will shorten the growing season; limit the size of fisheries; and reduce available drinking water. The Horn of Africa doesn’t significantly contribute to global carbon emissions, yet nations like Ethiopia and Kenya bear the brunt of its effects.[mfn]Abshir, Saga[/mfn]

Duss Tribe elders are prepared to protect their harvests and water

Human Rights Concerns

When the Gibe III Dam was in development, the Ethiopian government failed to collaborate with Indigenous tribes. Few tribal members speak Amheric, the national language, and literacy rates in the Lower Omo are the lowest in all of Ethiopia.[mfn]”The Omo Valley Tribes.”[/mfn] Only after construction began was a minimal environmental and social impact assessment carried out. Affected tribes were promised schools, health care, irrigated land and electricity after relocation; but they never came to fruition.[mfn]The Oakland Institute[/mfn]

The Ethiopian government is accused of human rights violations for its handling of tribes during the takeover of their traditional lands for development of plantation land. Back in 2012, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Ethiopian military’s use of violence and arrests to remove tribal members from their homes.[mfn]Horne, Felix[/mfn] Since then, racial tensions have escalated. In 2019, The Oakland Institute reported that Ethiopian officials have beaten, raped and killed civilian members of the Mursi and Bodi tribes. Disturbing reports of plantation vehicles intentionally hitting tribal members and the influx of migrant agricultural workers only adds to this conflict and associated resource stresses.[mfn]Mittal, Anuradha[/mfn]

 A Kenya tributary to Lake Turkana suffers from effects of climate change and upstream withdrawal.

What Can Be Done

Scientists, environmentalists and human-rights activists alike have been bringing attention to a number of solution-based initiatives including:

  • Floodwaters could be systematically released from the Gibe III Dam to mimic natural patterns of flow changes due to monsoonal rain patterns in Ethiopian highlands. This would allow remaining tribes to continue practicing flood-retreat agriculture and would help prevent the drying out of Lake Turkana.
  • Catchment management (strategies to minimize the effects of land use) could be instituted along with planting native cover crops and establishing protections for the most biodiverse areas.[mfn]Avery, Sean[/mfn]
  • Ethiopia could incorporate more solar and geothermal sources into their developing economy, rather than so heavily relying on hydropower dams, as fresh water is a scarce resource in Ethiopia’s southwestern Omo-Turkana Basin.

Now more than ever, climate change impacts make it especially important to establish secure sources of food and water. Ethiopia could develop a renewable energy economy without threatening these resources and abusing Indigenous citizens. Pressure on the Ethiopian government continues for a national commitment to the wellbeing and stability of its Indigenous Peoples — matching today’s growing global demands for a cessation of displacing tribal communities.

Karo mothers gather water daily from the Omo River


Abshir, Sagal. “Climate-Fragility Policy Paper: Climate Change and Security in the Horn of Africa: Can Europe Help To Reduce the Risks?” Climate Security Expert Network, 2020. Accessed February 1st, 2021 by MS.  https://www.eip.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/csen_policy_paper_climate_change_and_security_in_the_horn_of_africa.pdf  

Avery, Sean. “Lake Turkana & the Lower Omo: Hydrological Impacts of Major Dam & Irrigation Developments. Volume I – Report.” African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2012. Accessed February 1st, 2021 by MS. https://www.africanstudies.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/africanstudies/documents/media/executive_summary_introduction.pdf 

Avery, Sean. “What Future for Lake Turkana?” African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2013. Accessed January 30th, 2021 by MS. https://www.mursi.org/pdf/copy3_of_pastoral-livelihoods.pdf 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Olowan Industry.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016. Accessed January 30th, 2021 by MS. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Oldowan-industry 

Budgen, Mara. “The Omo Valley, Where Life Flows with the River.” Lifegate, 2020. Accessed January 31st, 2021 by MS. https://www.lifegate.com/lower-omo-valley-ethiopia-tribes-reportage

“Gilgel Gibe III Dam, Ethiopia.” Environmental Justice Atlas, 2020. Accessed January 29th, 2021 by MS. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/gibe-iii-dam-ethiopia 

Hodbod, Jennifer, et al. “Social-Ecological Change in the Omo-Turkana Basin: A Synthesis of Current Developments.” Ambio 48, 2019. Accessed January 30th, 2021 by MS.  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-018-1139-3#Tab1

Horne, Felix. “What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?” Human Rights Watch, 2012. Accessed February 2nd, 2021 by MS. https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/06/18/what-will-happen-if-hunger-comes/abuses-against-indigenous-peoples-ethiopias

“‘How They Tricked Us:’ Living with the Gibe III Dam and Sugarcane Plantations in Southwest Ethiopia.” The Oakland Institute, 2017. Accessed February 2nd, 2021 by MS. https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/ethiopia-tricked-gibe-dam-sugarcane-plantations.pdf 

Mittal, Anuradha. “Massacres in Lower Omo, Ethiopia, Call for Urgent Action by the Nobel Laureate PM Abiy Ahmed.” The Oakland Institute, 2019.  Accessed February 1st, 2021 by MS. https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/massacres-atrocities-lower-omo-region-ethiopia-call-urgent-action-nobel-laureate-abiy-ahmed

Ojwang W.O., et al. “Lake Turkana: World’s Largest Permanent Desert Lake (Kenya).” In: Finlayson C., Milton G., Prentice R., Davidson N. (eds) The Wetland Book. Springer, Dordrecht, 2016. Accessed January 31st, 2021 by MS. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6173-5_254-1

“The Omo Valley Tribes.” Survival International, n.d. Accessed January 31st, 2021 by MS. https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/omovalley 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.