Omo Valley is located in Southern Ethiopia, with the Omo River flowing into Kenya and many relying on the river for their livelihoods. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister, described the changes in 2011, saying, “there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this [South Omo] zone. I promise you that, even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”
This phrase, “rapid development” is always something that scares us, here at People Tree. “Rapid development” tends to mean brushing over the rights of a demographic, and indeed there are claims that exactly this is going on. The construction of a diversion dam led to a rising of floodwaters behind the dam, thus resulting in the flooding of Bodi farms, huts and granaries, displacing 220 households as well as destroying their sorghum crops for the year. Water levels also dropped dramatically downstream. So far 6,500 hectares of land has been cleared, the vast majority being previously used by the Bodi people for cattle grazing & crop production. There are also reports of assault, torture, imprisonment, rape and killings among those who resist, more information on this can be seen here. If the Ethiopian governments plan are followed through this would lead to the displacement of 200,000-500,000 people from the homelands on which their people have resided for generations.
Yet the government stance on this issue differs greatly. In Zenawi’s speech he explains his (and the Ethiopian government’s of course) reasoning behind the changes in the Omo area; stating that the biggest issue for the pastoralists was the lack of water, or easily accessible water. Zenawi says, “If we solve the water problem, that will help cattle raising to become productive and modern”, thus leading to the building of Gibe III, the dam, & the vast irrigation system in hope of creating “a stable, improved life”. He lashes out at critics including Survival International, saying, “They don’t want to see developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum … These people talk about the hazard of building dams after they have already completed building dams in their country.”
Of course this is a difficult debate to look at, and with 200,000-500,000 livelihoods at stake (depending on which source one takes their statistics from, International Rivers holding the larger number) , and according to Survival International, 100,000 tribespeople will be facing food shortages, making it a highly polarising matter. Whilst development in Africa has been very slow over the last 50/60 years, thanks to the horrific state in which colonialists left the continent, jobs are certainly a necessity. We feel that one must really be sure that development is happening in the right way, and not simply being developed for the sake of development; following the western model of capitalism, which effectively steals from the poor and voiceless, to give to the rich, who of course, have the loudest voices.