Ethiopia: Forced Displacement Causes Controversy in Ethiopia's Omo Valley

The Kwegu are one of the peoples of the Omo valley who have been affected by construction of the Gibe III dam.

A dam project and sugarcane plantation intended to transform southern Ethiopia could mean the end to a way of life for indigenous people living in the region.

The $1.7 billion hydroelectric Gibe III dam, completed in 2015, harnesses power from the Omo River. It can generate up to 1,870 megawatts of energy, equal to 40 percent of Ethiopia's total electricity demand.

And although the project has been a major source of pride for Ethiopians, the impact on people living in the region has been intensely debated.

The dam has ended the seasonal flooding that farmers and pastoralists relied on for their livelihood, according to a new report by the Oakland Institute, a California-based research institution.

The project has also failed to deliver employment for local people, and forced resettlement has led to food insecurity, the report outlined.

"The cost has been paid in huge proportions by these communities who have been forcibly displaced," Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, told VOA. "They have seen widespread human rights abuses, and now they see that it was nothing else but failed promises."

Ethiopia's minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Seleshi Bekele, said the report takes a "one-dimensional" view of things. He said the area is vital for the development of the country as a whole.

"Gibe Omo is an important resource corridor for the poor country of Ethiopia to build its economy," he told VOA. "And it transforms lives of the entire population of Ethiopia as well as, especially, of the people inhabiting the valley."

Sugar project

Downstream, the Kuraz Sugar Development Project was first projected to occupy 245,000 hectares of land and house five factories. Hailed as the "sweet promise," it was intended to propel Ethiopia into a leading role as a sugarcane producer.

But Mittal said it has also resulted in forced relocation, produced few jobs for locals and brought an influx of Ethiopians from other areas, changing the ethnic demographics of the area.

"Seven years after the project began, only 10,600 hectares of sugarcane had actually been planted, and only 13,000 hectares had been actually cleared," Mittal said. "So these grandiose schemes have not really paid off."

The report, based on interviews conducted since September 2017 and additional field research, outlines how the people of the Omo Valley have relied on seasonal floods for planting and harvesting. When the projects were first proposed, government officials promised "artificial flooding" to replicate the floods.

They also promised jobs and large plots of land for anyone relocated. The report shows that plots of land are not large enough to sustain farmers, and new jobs are scarce, low-paying and seasonal.

Government reaction

Water Minister Seleshi said artificial flooding will channel excess water to create modern irrigation systems for farmers that can help them get two to three times greater crop yields. He also said locals are being given motorboats for employment as fishermen.

"Where we resettle people, really we re-establish their lives and their livelihood in a way that is more advanced than what it used to be by providing potable water, electricity - by providing schools and social infrastructure," he said.

Seleshi also said resettled people are being fully compensated and stand to benefit as the area sees greater tourism and development. He questioned the motives of critics like those at the Oakland Institute.

"These kinds of dimensions might not be pleasing for some institutions who are very much keen to see indigenous people remain where they are," he said. "But as the government … we would like to build our economy and transform our society."

Mittal said it is the job of her organization, and others, to hold the government to account and speak up for the communities that have very little power.

"We need to ensure that the promises that were made to the communities, in terms of schooling and clinics, are actually fulfilled," said Mittal.

"These communities were promised … that they could still do their flood-retreat agriculture, which has not happened. So we need to ensure that those promises are fulfilled to the communities."

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