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Culture - Arts | Economy - Development | Human rights

Ethiopia dam to "devastate entire tribes"

Hunter from the Kwegu people in Ethiopia's Omo Valley

© Survival/afrol News
afrol News, 23 March
- A campaign has been launched to stop the building of a massive hydroelectric dam project on Ethiopia's Omo River. A human rights group says the dam will entirely uproot and destroy eight threatened cultures, most of which only live in the flooded area. 200,000 people are affected.

According to the UK-based human rights group Survival, the giant Gibe III dam now being built on the Omo River in south-western Ethiopia will have a "devastating" effect on an estimated "200,000 tribal people" in the country. In addition to the 150 kilometres long reservoir flooding their lands, environmental degradation will destroy their livelihood, the group holds.

"The dam will end the Omo's natural flood, which deposits fertile silt on the river banks, where the tribes cultivate crops when the waters recede," Survival says. "In a region where drought is commonplace, this will have devastating consequences for the tribes' food supplies," the group adds.

One of the major threats mapped is against the tiny Kwegu people. The UN's cultural organisation UNESCO lists the Kwegu people in its "Atlas on endangered languages" in Africa. In the 1980s, the entire Kwegu people consisted of 500 to 1000 people, while new estimates only count some 200 Kwegu.

According to Survival, the hunter-gatherer Kwegus "will be pushed to the brink as fish stocks will be reduced." Fish are a major food source for the Kwegu people. Six Kwegu, including two children, recently died of hunger because the rains and flood failed.

A Kwegu man sent this message to the outside world: "Go and give this news to your elders, we Kwegu people are hungry. Other tribes have cattle, they can drink milk and blood. We do not have cattle; we eat from the Omo River. We depend on the fish, they are like our cattle. If the Omo floods are gone we will die."

But the rights group claims that up to 200,000 people may use their livelihood and their traditional way of life and culture due to the dam. This include peoples such as the Hamar, Chai and Turkana, which mostly live further from the river but a network of inter-ethnic alliances means that they too can access the flood plains, especially in times of scarcity.

Further, the Mursi and Bodi people depend on interaction with the Kwegu. Other peoples depending directly from the Omo River are the Daasanach, Kara and Nyangatom, risking their entire homeland being lost to the dam project.

The dam construction foresees large changes to lands at River Omo and beyond. The Ethiopian government "plans to lease huge tracts of lands" owned by loca

The Kwegu people are hunters, gatherers and fishermen, only living in the area about to be flooded

© Survival/afrol News
l peoples in the Omo Valley "to foreign companies and governments for large-scale production of crops," including biofuels, which will be fed by water from the dam, according to Survival.

Most of the local peoples who will be affected by the dam know little about the project. The Ethiopian government is said to be "clamping down on tribal organisations," and last year closed down 41 local 'community associations', making it impossible for communities to hold meetings about the dam.

Environmental damage could, activists fear, be far ranging. The Omo River is the primary source of Kenya's famous Lake Turkana, which supports the lives of 300,000 people who pasture their cattle on its banks and fish there. "The dam will threaten their survival too," Survival fears. Both the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Survival thus today started an international campaign to stop the building of the Gibe III dam, and urging the African Development Bank and other financing institutions to stop funding the project. Stephen Corry of the group today said the dam "will be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the tribes of the Omo valley. Their land and livelihoods will be destroyed." He added that "no respectable outside body should be funding this atrocious project."

But the call may come late. The euro 1.4 billion (US $1.7 billion) work is a prestigious project for the Ethiopian government and key to its plans to finally increase electrification. The Ethiopian government claims Gibe III, aside from generating enough electricity to power the country several times over, will increase the safety of the downstream peoples by stopping giant floods from sweeping away livestock and people.

The mere dimensions of the project indicate it will be hard to stop. Gibe III will be the second largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, also providing electricity to needing neighbour countries. The dam wall will be 240 metres high - the tallest dam in Africa - and create a 150 kilometres long reservoir lake.

And also the timing is late to stop the project. Salini Costruttori, an Italian company, started construction work on the Gibe III dam already in 2006, and by now has built a third of it. The dam is due to be completed in 2012.

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