People of Omo River Basin sold down the river

Exactly two years ago to the month, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Dam and the Damned: Gilgel Gibe III Ethiopia” focusing on the impact of   “development” in the Omo River Basin (ORB) in southern Ethiopia. In that commentary, I echoed the deep concerns voiced by various international human rights and environmental organizations over the ecological impact and cost of that dam on the lives of indigenous populations.

1I also made it a special point to express gratitude and appreciation to “the great international human rights organization that have created so much international awareness on the precarious environmental situation in the Omo River Basin.” I am even more profoundly grateful to International Rivers, Human Rights Watch, the Oakland Institute, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group two years later for the extraordinary work they continue to do to save the environment and the indigenous people in the ORB. For years, these organizations have been in the forefront of the race to save Ethiopians damned by the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric dam.

3The various international organizations have done invaluable work by raising public awareness and undertaking advocacy campaigns to bring international attention to the ecological disaster taking place in the ORB. Over the years, they have all issued meticulously prepared field reports, research and policy analyses and other scientific and statistical reports documenting the effect of the “development programs” of the regime in power in Ethiopia on the lives and livelihoods of the people of the ORB. They have all sought to advocate and mobilize international public opinion to bring sanity to the madness of Gibe III dam, the flagitious leasing of tribal lands in the Basin for sugar and rice plantations for the export sector and to stop the forced resettlement (“villagization”) of indigenous communities.

4In my 2012 commentary, I also publicly lamented the fact that Ethiopians, particularly those of us in the Diaspora, have been standing on the sidelines with arms folded as the various international human rights and environmental organizations groups were running a steep uphill race to save Ethiopians in the ORB. We have been silently watching them doing all of the heavy lifting for us.  At the time, I pleaded with all Ethiopians to “join and help international human and environmental rights organizations help us, and engage in vigorous environmental activism of our own.” I appealed for the “creation of our own environmental civil society organizations, particularly in the Diaspora, to ensure that Ethiopia’s rich and diverse ecosystem is preserved and protected today and for future generations.” I also warned, “If we fail to do that, we will all find ourselves in the same position as the people of the Omo River Basin who are damned by the dam.”

5It is painful for me (frankly, I am ashamed) to admit that two years after I wrote that commentary, we are still on the sidelines watching while the international human rights and environmental organizations are still doing all of the heavy lifting for us and keeping up the race to save our people. I find myself asking the same questions over and over, without answers: Is it fair to have the international human rights and environmental organizations do all of the heavy lifting for us in the ORB? When these organizations show so much care and concern for our people and our country, why are we so manifestly unconcerned? Why is that we do not join and support the organizations speaking up for our people? Why is it that we do not come to the aid of these organizations and defend them against the slings and arrows of a vicious regime which slanders them and scandalizes their good works?  Would we be as passive and silent if the same environmental crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed in the name of “development” in other parts of Ethiopia? Are we manifestly unconcerned about the people of the ORB because they are marginalized ethnic minorities? Could it be that we are ashamed of the people of the ORB because they do not look “modern” like the rest of us, or are a “backward civilization” as the late Meles Zenawi once called them? How can we justify to future generations that they owe their legacy of environmental conservation and protection of the indigenous peoples of the ORB to the tireless efforts of international organizations? I ask my readers to think about these questions. 

7I think it is only fair that we should at least financially help those organizations who are helping us. There is no reason why we cannot demonstrate our support to them as they fight for the rights of our people in the ORB. We should be standing with them and not standing on the sidelines watching them.

The clear and present danger posed by the Gilgel Gibe III dam to the people of the ORB

The Gibe III dam poses a clear and present danger to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in the ORB including the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi, Nyangatom and Dasanech, among others, who have survived for millennia practicing what is called “flood retreat agriculture”. At the end of the rainy season, the flooded land near the river banks provides rich silt for raising a variety of crops including sorghum, maize and beans. The very existence of these Ethiopians depends on the cyclical flooding season. The Gibe III dam will fundamentally disrupt the natural downstream flow by damming the river upstream for electricity production for export. Experts have convincingly argued that the water volume on the Omo River will be permanently reduced as a result of diversion of water for the dam reservoir and irrigation of sugar plantations. This will make flood retreat agriculture virtually impossible for the people living in the Basin. In August 2012, the world renowned conservationist and paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey challenged the self-serving Gibe III “scientific” studies minimizing the ecological effects of the dam and predicted, “the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream.”

“Developing” the Omo River Basin

In late January 2011, Meles Zenawi gave a speech in Jinka, South Omo. It was vintage Meles– bombastic, bitter and full of bluster. He promised the sun and moon to the people trapped in the “backward civilization” of the ORB. He pledged to take them out of the stone age and into the modern age by making the region “an example of rapid development.” He assured them that the “dam on the Omo River [will] eliminate flood, create a huge irrigation system and give pastoralists a sustainable income and a modern life.”

With a vengeance, Meles demonized and lashed out at the environmental and human rights organizations urging care and caution in the construction of the Gibe III dam and protection of the way of life of the indigenous people. He characterized them as naysayers and doomsayers “who want to block our freedom to use our rivers, and to save our people from poverty.” He called them malicious obstructionists. “They are creating huge propaganda… They are blocking us from getting financial loans from abroad to finish the project.” He ridiculed them as “best friends of backwardness and poverty… who don’t actually do anything tangible.” He virtually called them self-absorbed racists because “all they want is keep the pastoralists as a tourist attraction” and keep the people of the ORB “a case study of ancient living for scientists and researchers.”

Meles and his henchmen have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the environmental devastation that has occurred and continues to occur in the construction of the Gibe III dam and the “development” of the Basin. In July 2008, two years after construction began on the dam and international human rights and environmental organizations began sounding the alarm, Meles directed his “Environmental Protection Authority” to issue the Gibe III Environmental Social Impact Assessment. That report was a shameless whitewash which rubber-stamped Meles’ pigheaded decision to forge ahead with the project. It was full of boldfaced lies. It unabashedly concluded that the reservoir area for Gibe III is unfit for human habitation because it is infested by deadly mosquitoes and tsetse flies (which cause “sleeping sickness”). It claimed, “There is no settlement in the future reservoir area and settlements are concentrated on the highland in areas outside the valley…  There is very little farming activity around the Omo valley bottom lands. … The population living within the proposed dam and the reservoir areas are not in close proximity to the UNESCO designated heritage site. No visible archaeological remains, which have scientific, cultural, public, economic, ethnic and historic significances, have been observed in the area and dam sites.”

Meles’ way of “modernizing” the “backward” people of the ORB was to turn over the Basin to Saudi Arabian and other foreign investors and his buddies.  Meles announced in his speech that his “government is planning, and working hard to establish, a 150,000 hectare sugarcane development in this area starting this year.” Sure enough, according to IC Magazine, “A Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi, with close links to the top-level Ethiopian leadership [was] allotted 10,000 hectares for a rice plantation. His massive project has done considerable damage to the local environment, which includes a national park and wildlife habitat, and local communities that have lived in their homelands for many generations.”

Meles announced that five sugar factories will be built in the ORB by the Omo Kuraz Sugar Development project. According to “Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency”, “Mesfin Industrial Engineering (MIE) signed ETB 3 billion ($162.2 million) worth contracts with state-owned enterprises to deliver machineries for the Tana Beles Integrated Sugar Development Project and the Kuraz Sugar development projects in the Amhara region and the Omo Valley…” MIE is “also producing railroad tracks for the Dire Dawa-Addis Ababa railway project and finalizing preparations to deliver the same for the Djibouti through Afar to Northern Ethiopia railway line.”

In June 2011, UNESCO concluded that “GIBE III dam is likely to significantly alter Lake Turkana’s fragile hydrological regime, and threaten its aquatic species and associated biological systems” and “urged the State Party of Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam [and not] damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage located on the territory of another State Party.”

In Meles “development” plans, the impoverished and defenseless people of the ORB get the shaft while his filthy rich friends became super-filthy rich. According to one environmental study published in January 2014, “Construction of the Kuraz Sugar plantations (projected to cover 161,285 hectares) and accompanying infrastructure, including sugar processing factories and resettlement villages, has started in advance of completion of the Gibe III. The Kuraz Sugar plantations, plus additional area identified as suitable for cultivation (47,370 hectares), could eventually require over 50% of the Omo River inflow, depending on irrigation efficiency.”

Meles Zenawi’s “modernization” of the ORB was a windfall for his buddies, but it literally left the people of the Omo River Basin high and dry. Meles’ vision for the ORB and its people was, “what’s good for the ‘Saudi Arabian tycoon Al-Moudi’ and ‘Mesfin Industrial Engineering’ is good enough for the people of the Omo River Basin.” That is how Ethiopians in the Omo River Basin got sold down the river!

The continuing race to save the Omo River and indigenous people

Last week, International Rivers released a video on the environmental risks to the Omo River valley and severe and irreversible damage that could result to the people and ecosystem of the valley if the dam and thoughtless “development” projects concocted by the regime in power in Ethiopia continue unrestrained. It is a video worth watching as it clearly explains the clear and present danger facing the ORB.

There is little scientific doubt that Gibe III dam and the irrigation diverting water on the Omo River poses a clear and present danger to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. Studies have shown that by ending the river’s natural flood cycle, harvests, grazing lands, river banks and fisheries extending to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, would be destroyed. The dam will devastate the unique culture and ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Experts fear that “Gibe III could destroy the fragile ecosystem for an additional 300,000 people downstream in Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site  which gets up to 90% of its water from the Omo River.”

It is particularly important for Ethiopians to understand the scope of the environmental damage and the human cost of the dam in the ORB. I specially urge my Ethiopian readers to view the Amharic version of the International Rivers video by clicking  HERE or on the picture below.

USAID and Donors Assistance Group in Ethiopia (a/k/a those who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” in the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin)

The official position of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Development Assistance Group’s (DAG) (a consortium of 26 donors) in Ethiopia has been to stonewall any questions of human rights abuses in the ORB. Stated bluntly, their official response could best be characterized as: “We see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil about human rights violations in the Omo River Basin.”

In October 2010, a few days after Human Right Watch released its report on the abuses of aid in Ethiopia, USAID and DAG issued a statement denying the “widespread, systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. Our study did not generate any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion.” In 2012, USAID reported that it “did not find evidence to support claims [of human right violations] during its visit to South Omo.” In a letter dated January 17, 2014, Dennis Weller USAID, current Mission Director in Ethiopia stated that his agency and “other donors have been monitoring the situation in South Omo” and that “the main finding from these trips is that there are no reports of widespread or systematic human rights abuses. Our observations do not support assertions… that the resettlement processes are accompanied by systematic and widespread human rights abuses.”

Interestingly, Weller’s comments brushing off human rights abuses in the ORB are in stark contrast to his predecessor Thomas Staal’s. In an interview Stall gave before his reassignment to Bagdad in October 2010, he made the stunning admission that “with respect to political participation, we have not done a good job. Specifically, with respect to the election that took place two years ago, we have not done much to promote democracy… This is a hard situation that causes us to despair.” No reason for Weller to “despair” over human rights abuses in the ORB!

The official position of  USAID and DAG with respect to human rights abuses in the ORB could be reduced to two basic propositions: 1) The reports by international human rights and environmental organizations concerning forced evictions, villagization, resettlement, denial of access to subsistence land, beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of government assistance are all fabrications and lies. 2) Even if the reports are accurate, they document anecdotal and isolated incidents which do amount to “systematic and widespread human rights abuses”.

USAID’s denial of “systematic and widespread human rights abuses” in Ethiopia should not surprise anyone. For years, USAID has taken shelter behind the empty phrase “systematic and widespread human rights abuses”. When Meles Zenawi declared in 2010 that his party had won the parliamentary elections by 99.6 percent, USAID found no “systematic and widespread human rights abuses”. When the Meles regime was committing crimes against humanity in Gambella and Ogaden regions, USAID transformed itself into USA In Denial. When hundreds of top opposition political figures, activists, civil society leaders, journalists, dissidents, bloggers, human rights advocates were jailed, USAID’s response was, “No systematic and widespread human rights abuses”. Nope! Nyet! Nien!  Pray tell, what exactly is “massive and systematic human rights violations”? Does USAID mean, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”? Perhaps for USAID a single human rights violation in the ORB is a tragedy but the wholesale violation of the human rights of the people in the Omo River Basin is a statistic?!

The fact of the matter is that USAID and others who visited the Omo region in January 2012 were provided compelling “audio recordings of the interviews conducted in several Lower Omo communities.” These recording “leave no room for doubt that the donor agencies were given highly credible first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations during the field investigation [undertaken by USAID and the Development Assessment Group] and that they have chosen to steadfastly ignore these accounts.”

U.S. Congress joins the race to save the people of the Omo River Basin

In July 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) included language in Senate Bill 1372 imposing certain certification requirements in the administration of U.S. aid in Ethiopia. The Leahy language was adopted in the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014” which passed both houses on January 3, 2014. Section 7042(d) of the Act requires the U.S. Secretary of State to “certify to the Committees on Appropriations that the Government of Ethiopia is implementing policies to — (i) protect judicial independence; freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion; the right of political opposition parties, civil society organizations, and journalists to operate without harassment or interference; and due process of law; and (ii) permit access to human rights and humanitarian organizations to the Somali region of Ethiopia.” It further requires that U.S. ‘‘Development Assistance’ and ‘Economic Support Fund’ that are available for assistance in the lower Omo and Gambella regions of Ethiopia shall— (A) not be used to support activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions; (B) support initiatives of local communities to improve their livelihoods; and (C) be subject to prior consultation with affected populations.” The law requires the “Secretary of the Treasury to instruct the United States executive director of each international financial institution to oppose financing for any activities that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions in Ethiopia.” It seems the international human rights and environmental organizations that have been campaigning to protect the ORB and Gambella ecosystems and indigenous peoples have been right all along!!

Where are Ethiopians in the race to save the ORB and the indigenous people?

The titular prime minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, is said to be knowledgeable about water development and sanitation. He reportedly held a “graduate assistantship” at Arba Minch Water Technology Institute. He is also said to come from “an Omotic community which forms the principal population group in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region.” It is reasonable to suppose that Hailemariam would take both personal and professional interest in the environmental destruction and human cost of “development” in the ORB. Unfortunately, Hailemariam has repeatedly declared the he “will strive to carry on Meles’ vision to transform the country”, and by the same token oversee the destruction of the ORB ecosystem and the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the Basin.

I admit it is a complete exercise in futility, but I urge Hailemariam and his regime to learn from the tragedy of Lake Oroumieh in Iran. That lake has shrunk by 80 percent in 10 years as a result of damning rivers and irrigation projects. The response of the Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to the environmental disaster was “to form a team and to invite scholars to help find solutions.”

I have no reason to believe that Hailemariam and his crew care much about Lake Turkana in which the Omo River empties or the environmental damage in the ORB. I know that a regime afflicted by the arrogance of ignorance will not invite scholars and experts in the field to seek long-term solutions. I expect the regime leaders will repeat like a broken record their Pollyannish rhetoric about the ORB and demonizing condemnation of all who urge caution and care. Regardless, I find it a historical imperative to register the fact that Hailemariam and Co., have a legal duty to mitigate the environmental disaster and human catastrophe in the ORB. After all, they must understand that “Truth will not remain forever on the scaffold, nor wrong forever remain on the throne.”

What about Diaspora Ethiopians? Will they join the race to save their fellow Ethiopians damned by the Gibe III dam? Will they stand up and speak up for the voiceless, defenseless, powerless and helpless people of the ORB? Will they stand up and be counted with the people of the ORB or abandon them because they are a “backward civilization” as Meles Zenawi called them? Will they join International River, Human Rights Watch, Survival International and the Africa Resources Working Group in the heavy lifting and uphill fighting to save the Omo River Basin and its indigenous people? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I will be doing what I always do: Carry water (though not from the Omo River) for those doing the heavy lifting and uphill fighting! 

 “Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights/3 and international human rights law.” United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 61/295.

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:




  1. What is in this article for Somaliland? And why the professor failed to post his article on Ethipian Magazines?

  2. I early felt home by reading this website, but Why a naked women picture doing on web page, are website was taken over by Ethiopian

  3. Ethiopia should develop its dam but also take care of its people in the process, it will take a while but it needs to be done and this dam needs to get done.