Inaugurated in mid-December 2016, the Gibe III dam is expected to make an important contribution to Ethiopia’s energy supply with nearly 1870 MW of hydroelectricity (International Water Power & Dam Construction, 2016). The dam is also supposed to regulate the seasonal flow of the Omo River and thus to permit large-scale production of sugar cane in the Lower Omo Valley. However, as critics of the dam point out, flow regulation and water abduction for commercial agriculture could compromise the livelihoods of downstream rural communities and thus feed into existing grievances against the Ethiopian state, or exacerbate communal conflicts across the Kenyan-Ethiopian border (Adusei, 2012; HRW, 2014a, Johannes et al., 2015; Vidal, 2015).
Flood control, irrigation and threats to rural livelihoods
A first problem arises because projects of flow regulation and irrigated agriculture stand at odds with traditional livelihood strategies of downstream communities (Greste, 2009). In order to cope with the region’s erratic weather conditions, rural communities of the Lower Omo River Valley practice a mixture of flood recession agriculture and pastoralism, both of which rely on seasonal floods of the Omo River for replenishing crop and grazing land along the riverbank (HRW, 2012; HRW, 2014b). In contrast, irrigated sugar plantations require a more constant flow of river water throughout the year and can be damaged by excessive floods. As a solution to this problem, the developers of Gibe III promise to include a controlled flood once a year in the regular operation of the dam. However, independent experts are sceptical about the effectiveness of this measure, with some even doubting that it will be applied once the sugar plantations are in place (Avery, 2013; Fong, 2015; International Rivers, 2015).
A second problem arises because water abduction for irrigated sugar plantations is likely to significantly reduce downstream water flows (Fong, 2015; UNEP, 2013; Velpuri & Senay, 2012). Sugarcane is a water intensive crop. Hence, projects of the Ethiopian government to convert 175,000 ha of land along the Omo River into sugar plantations are likely to deplete essential water and soil resources, on which downstream communities depend (Fong, 2015; Perry, 2015).
Beyond the borders of Ethiopia, large-scale water abduction for commercial agriculture also risks affecting the level of Lake Turkana in Kenya, which receives most of its water from the Omo River (Fong, 2015). As estimated by Avery (2013), Lake Turkana could drop by as much as 22 metres as a result of heavy water extraction from the Omo River. This would have disastrous consequences for some 300,000 fishermen and pastoralists across the Kenyan-Ethiopian border (see also Avery, 2012; HRW, 2014b; International Rivers, 2015).
Many of these concerns have already become evident since operations began, as noted in the most recent state of conservation report by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) on Lake Turkana (UNESCO WHC, 2018b). Data provided to the WHC have shown that the lake’s water levels have declined rapidly since the impounding of the Gibe III reservoir in 2015, and that “seasonal fluctuation patterns have been heavily disrupted.” More recent studies have also highlighted the dam’s negative impacts on the lake’s hydrology: the annual mean chlorophyll levels in the lake have declined by 30% during the filling of the dam, and is projected to decline further, which would have severe consequences to the lake’s primary productivity (Tebbs et al., 2020).
Forced evictions and grievances against the government
The dam and irrigation projects have been designed and implemented without previous consultations with downstream communities, some of which have even been violently evicted to clear land for sugar plantations (De Cave, 2014; HRW, 2012). To compensate for the loss of communal land, the Ethiopian government promised 150,000 new jobs on commercial plantations as well as improved access to services. Yet, past experiences with resettlement programmes in Ethiopia suggest that these promises are unlikely to materialise (HRW, 2012). Moreover, settled communities are left more vulnerable, as they are forced to abandon traditional coping strategies to become fully dependent on local employers and relief agencies (HRW, 2012). In many cases, farm encroachment on communal land and abuses by security forces have contributed to long-standing grievances among already marginalised Southern Omo communities.
In addition, the revenue and number of jobs anticipated from these new plantations may not materialise. For example, the Ethiopian state-owned Kuraz Sugar Development Project (KSDP) in the lower Omo valley may not fulfil its expected contributions to the national economy due to the project’s downsizing in recent years (Kamski, 2016).
Most groups in the region share a critical if not hostile attitude towards their government, which has mostly ignored their needs in the past (Grest, 2009). Furthermore, groups such as the Nyangatom are well armed and have acquired considerable military experience fighting alongside the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the South Sudanese civil war. Under these circumstances, exclusion from decision-making and forceful evictions might fuel violent resistance (Grest, 2009).
Communal conflicts over water and grazing land
Another possible outcome of forced evictions and increasing water scarcity in the Lower Omo/Turkana region could be an increase in the frequency and intensity of conflicts between communal groups such as the Turkana, Nyangatom and Dassanach (Adusei, 2012). In the past, these groups have often been involved in clashes over resources against the backdrop of progressively declining environmental conditions (see Drought and Conflict across the Kenyan-Ethiopian Border). These conflicts risk intensifying, as water and grazing land become scarcer and Ethiopian groups are pushed further southwards into territory claimed by their Kenyan neighbours (HRW, 2014a, 2014b; Johannes et al., 2015). Moreover, the shrinking of Lake Turkana might incite new conflicts between Kenyan communities that were previously separated by this natural barrier (Fong, 2015; Vidal, 2015).
In fact, the dam is already causing violent and often lethal clashes between Kenyan and Ethiopian fishermen on Lake Turkana (Vivekananda, 2015). As a result of the changing water table and subsequent movement of fish stock, Kenyan fishermen are increasingly venturing into ‘Ethiopian waters’ leading to violent retaliations – the fishermen on both sides are armed with machine guns. The Kenyan government has authorised the National Guard to engage and use non-lethal force to detain Ethiopian fishermen. According to local Turkana fishermen interviewed for International Alert’s Kenya Peace Audit in 2015, 30 Turkana fishermen had allegedly been shot that year. The likelihood is an increase and escalation of such violence as the work on the dam progresses (Vivekananda, 2015).
Environmental organisations and independent experts are urging the Government of Ethiopia to mitigate the detrimental effects of hydroelectric dams on the Omo River and halt agricultural development projects until plans for a more equitable and sustainable use of water resources have been prepared in consultation with affected communities. The stakes are high, as the government plans to build two more dams on the Omo River (Gibe IV and V) to further increase energy production (International Rivers, 2015).
Reducing the adverse impacts of Gibe III
International Rivers (2015) suggests introducing so called “environmental flows” in the operation of Gibe III. Environmental flows are seasonally and annually varying water flows that mimic natural variations in flow levels and support ecosystems and human livelihoods while providing for other uses such as hydropower, irrigation and water supply (see Richter & Thomas, 2007). However, the implementation of such a system can be quite challenging (see Le Quesne et al., 2010). Among other things, it remains uncertain whether the interests of downstream communities would prevail against plans for future dams and the need to protect major irrigation investments from damage by floods (Avery, 2013).
Following talks initiated by UNESCO's WHC, the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia promised to conduct a Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) to evaluate the effect of future irrigation projects on downstream water flows and Lake Turkana. The impact assessment is supposed to produce a roadmap for sustainable development in the Lower Omo Valley. Experts had hoped that the joint assessment might discourage the large-scale abduction of water for irrigation (Muchangi, 2014).
Yet the commissioning of the impact assessment continues to face delays due to disagreements on funding and stagnant bilateral discussions between both countries (UNESCO WHC, 2019). As a result, the disruptive impacts of the dam have not been sufficiently addressed, leading to the WHC’s decision in 2018 to inscribe the Lake Turkana National Parks on the list of endangered world heritage sites (UNESCO WHC, 2018a).
Including downstream communities in development planning
Moreover, current grievances could be reduced by facilitating the participation of local communities in future land use plans for the Lower Omo Valley. The Ethiopian government has established a number of Basin Development Authorities to help ensure sustainable development for downstream communities (Savage, 2014). However, additional efforts are needed to overcome present marginalisation and distrust in the government.
As noted by Perry (201), there is also a general failure to recognise the potential of traditional farming and herding techniques as viable coping strategies vis-à-vis increasingly erratic weather conditions in the Lower Omo Valley. Supporting these activities could further improve their efficiency, reduce vulnerability and work against the stigmatisation of local communities and their way of life.
Resilience and Peace Building
Promoting alternative livelihoods
Supporting traditional farming and herding techniques could improve their efficiency and reduce the vulnerability of local communities.
Improving actionable information
The governments of Kenya and Ethiopia have promised to conduct a Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) so as to evaluate the effect of future irrigation projects on downstream water flows, although the commissioning of the joint assessment continues to face delays.
Improving resource efficiency
The introduction of “environmental flows” has been suggested in order to mimic natural variations in flow levels and support ecosystems and human livelihoods while providing water for other uses such as hydropower and irrigated agriculture.
Resources and Materials
- Adusei, L.A. (2012). Ethiopia’s Gibe III hydropower dam: pastoralists and environmentalists versus the government.
- Avery, S. (2012). Lake Turkana & the Lower Omo: Hydrological Impacts of Major Dam & Irrigation Development: Volume I: Report.
- Avery, S. (2013). What Future for Lake Turkana? Oxford: African Studies Centre.
- De Cave, M. (2014). Who gives a “dam” about the Omo River in Ethiopia? Water security and sustainability of the Gibe III dam through a social - ecological analysis.
- Fong, C. (2015). A Cascade of Development on the Omo River: Downstream Effects of the Gibe III Filling and Associated Commercial Irrigation Projects. International Rivers.
- Greste, P. (2009). The dam that divides Ethiopians.
- HRW (2012). “What Will Happen if Hunger Comes?”: Abuses against the Indigenous Peoples of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley.
- HRW (2014a). Ethiopia: Land, Water Grabs Devastate Communities.
- HRW (2014b). Ethiopia: Omo Sugar Plantations.
- International Rivers (2015). Omo River, Lake Turkana at Risk from Dams and Plantations.
- International Water Power & Dam Construction (2016). Gibe III inaugurated in Ethiopia.
- Johannes, E.M. et al. (2015). Oil discovery in Turkana County, Kenya: a source of conflict or development? African Geographical Review, 34(2), 142-164.
- Kamski, B. (2016). The Kuraz Sugar Development Project (KSDP) in Ethiopia: between ‘sweet visions’ and mounting challenges. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 10(3), 568-580.
- Le Quesne, T. et al. (2010). The implementation challenge: Taking stock of government policies to protect and restore environmental flows. The Nature Conservancy, WWF.
- Muchangi, J. (2014). Will Kenya's Frantic Efforts to Save Lake Turkana Succeed?
- Perry, M. (2015). Dismantling the Omo Valley.
- Richter, B.D. & Thomas, G.A. (2007). Restoring environmental flows by modifying dam operations. Ecology and Society, 12(1), 12.
- Savage, E. (2014). Damming the Omo: Ethiopia’s bid for hydropower dominance.
- Tebbs, E.J. et al. (2020). Satellite remote sensing reveals impacts from dam-associated hydrological changes on chlorophyll-a in the world’s largest desert lake. River Research and Applications, 36(2), 211-222.
- UNEP (2013). Balancing economic development and protecting the cradle of mankind - Lake Turkana basin. UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS).
- UNESCO WHC (2018a). Lake Turkana National Parks (Kenya) inscribed on List of World Heritage in Danger.
- UNESCO WHC (2018b). State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. WHC/18/42.COM/7B.
- UNESCO WHC (2019). State of Conservation. Lake Turkana National Parks (Kenya).
- Velpuri, N.M. & Senay, G.B. (2012). Assessing the potential hydrological impact of the Gibe III Dam on Lake Turkana water level using multi-source satellite data. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 16, 3561–3578.
- Vidal, J. (2015). Ethiopia dam will turn Lake Turkana into 'endless battlefield', locals warn.
- Vivekananda, J. (2015). Peace Audit Kenya. London: International Alert.