Catastrophic dam inaugurated today in Ethiopia

Mursi in Lower Omo Valley village of Mursi Hanna on market day, Ethiopia.
Mursi in Lower Omo Valley village of Mursi Hanna on market day, Ethiopia.
© Greg Lupe/Survival

One of the most controversial dams in history is to be inaugurated today. The Gibe III dam has put an end to the natural flooding of Ethiopia’s Omo River, on which 100,000 indigenous people depend and a further 100,000 rely indirectly.

Experts have warned that this could also mean the end for Lake Turkana in Kenya – the world’s largest desert lake – and disaster for the 300,000 tribespeople living along its shores.

The dam was built by Italian engineering giant Salini Impregilo, against which Survival has filed a formal complaint that is still ongoing. Plans are now underway to build the Gibe IV and Gibe V dams downriver.

Experts warned that artificial floods were untested, offered little security and were unlikely to be released due to high costs.
Experts warned that artificial floods were untested, offered little security and were unlikely to be released due to high costs.
© Greg Lupe/Survival

The Ethiopian government and Salini claimed that artificial floods would replace the natural floods, but for the past two years the authorities have failed to release enough water to sustain people’s livelihoods.

Many are now reliant on food aid, which has not been delivered regularly or in sufficient quantities. One witness told a board member of International Rivers in November: “The river does not provide for us anymore. My people are facing a big problem. The aid isn’t enough to live on.

“The river continues to go down. The crocodiles are still in the river, but having problems. The fish are having trouble laying their eggs. Less and less fish each year.”

Kara women, Lower Omo Valley.
Kara women, Lower Omo Valley.
© Eric Lafforgue/Survival

The region is one of the most important sites in early human evolution, and an area of exceptional biodiversity, with two World Heritage Sites and five national parks. The head of Kenya’s national conservation agency said in March that the dam was unleashing “one of the worst environmental disasters you can imagine.”

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today: “What is really being inaugurated today? Mounting hunger, insecurity and environmental destruction. For years experts urged the government and Salini to take caution – but they paid no heed. They may try to frame the ensuing famine as a natural disaster but this misery is of their own making.”