Magazine article New African

Ethiopia 'A Dam of Contention': Ethiopia's Controversial Gibe III Dam Is Going Ahead Amidst Conflicting Views from Local People and International Critics. Our Correspondent, Kate Eshelby, Has Recently Returned from There and Reports That While the Local People Think the Dam Will Destroy Their Way of Life, the Ethiopian Government Says It Will Bring Electricity and Progress. Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong? Read It All Here

Magazine article New African

Ethiopia 'A Dam of Contention': Ethiopia's Controversial Gibe III Dam Is Going Ahead Amidst Conflicting Views from Local People and International Critics. Our Correspondent, Kate Eshelby, Has Recently Returned from There and Reports That While the Local People Think the Dam Will Destroy Their Way of Life, the Ethiopian Government Says It Will Bring Electricity and Progress. Who Is Right and Who Is Wrong? Read It All Here

Article excerpt

It's better to kill us first, Olikoro says; an AK-47 rests by his side and a vision of his future screeches in his eyes. Olikoro, a man from Ethiopia's Mursi ethnic group, talks about the Gibe III dam: the latest in a cascade of dams being built on the Omo River in south-west Ethiopia.

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The Omo River begins its 500-mile journey in Ethiopia's emerald highlands and drops through steep gorges to a sun-scotched valley before twisting towards the turquoise jewel of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, the dam seems essential for progress. Bur travelling along the river, deep into the Omo valley, you see how people depend on it, and the detrimental impact it will have on the lives of half a million people.

The 15 ethnic groups living in the Omo valley use the river's seasonal floods to nourish their crops. In March and September, the rains tumble onto the highlands, causing the Omo River to flood. It then retreats--ready for the people to return to newly replenished riverbanks to plant maize and sorghum. The dam will quell these floods. "If the dam is built, we will die," Olikoro says simply.

According to Terri Hathaway of International Rivers, an organisation working to protect rivers and encourage sustainable energy: "Environmental impact assessment (EIA) papers were prepared highlighting the dam's negative impacts, but no mention was made of the people living downstream."

The people in the Omo valley live faraway downstream from the dam, but it is they who will suffer when their livelihoods are devastated. "So you would have thought they are integral to any decisions made," Hathaway continues dryly.

Many people who I meet along the Omo River do not even know a dam is being built--no one has told them.

The Mursi (famous for their women's clay lip plates) are agro pastoralists: they practice flood-retreat and rain-fed agriculture, and cattle rearing. Their survival relies on marrying all three together in a nomadic lifestyle. "Each one is critical because it supplements the others," David Turton, an anthropologist who specialises in Mursi culture, says. Or as Olikoro insists: "You need three stones to put a pot over a fire. It's no good having two."

Here rain-fed farming is very unpredictable because rain in the local flood-plain is erratic whereas the floods, which depend on the highland's heavy rains, always happen (although their size differs)--making flood-retreat cultivation the most reliable food supply for the Mursi. They have orchestrated their survival mechanisms over thousands of years of living in an unforgiving, drought-prone environment.

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"They understand their environment and are self-reliant in food production. They don't usually rely on food aid," Turton says. With the nutrient-rich silt-laden floodwaters, their flood-retreat cultivation does not even need fertilisers.

Further south downriver are the Dassenech people who live in the Omo Delta. They are even more dependent on the floods. Here the river floods broad areas, renewing the grass and providing dry season grazing for their cattle, which are the people's most precious possession.

But Ethiopia needs electricity if it is to develop fast. It also has few exploitable natural resources, except hydropower; and with numerous river basins and high central mountains swooping down to the lowland, this has huge potential. Half the electricity produced can even be exported to its energy-strapped neighbours, Kenya and Sudan, earning much-needed foreign exchange.

"Westerners don't want to hear about progress in Africa. Ethiopia's large-scale development has offered a lot of sticks to wield against the 'foolish Africans'," says Gail Warden, from the Ethiopian Embassy in London. "Anyone opposed to the dams should suggest alternative solutions to creating vast amounts of energy to feed the fastest growing non-oil economy in Africa," she continues. …

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