By Osinde Obare
For decades, cattle have been a source of pride, wealth and food, and are intimately tied to the cultural identity of the eight ethnic groups in Ethiopia’s South Omo Valley.
The annual flooding of the Omo River dictates the rhythms of life and culture that permeate the area.
But with the coming of the Gibe III Dam, the livelihoods of the indigenous people of the Omorate in Southern Nations is at risk.
“There is no more singing and dancing along the Omo River. The people are too hungry. The children are quiet. If the Omo River floods are gone, we will die,’’ Itailu Reeyot told The Standard on Sunday at the Lower Valley.
Reeyot, who five years ago shifted to farming after he lost his herds to drought, has been depending on flooding of the Omo River to cultivate crops along the banks to put food on the table.
“We have been snatched our source of livelihood to pave the way for construction of the dam. We are not going to grow food anymore because there will be no floodwater to our fields,” he laments.
The curse is in the hearts of many Daasanachtribesmen who a couple of years ago tapped the fertile soils along River Omo for agriculture. The six different tribes are Daasanach, Bodi, Kara, Kwegu, Mursi and Nyangatom. They live along the lower reaches of Omo River.
Many of these communities are a blend to nomadic herdsmen and shifting agriculturalists. These communities travel to the area in search of water and grazing lands.
They also depend on the river for their livelihood, having developed ecological practices that are intricately adapted to the semi-arid climate and flooding cycle of the river.
Historians believe the lower valley of the Omo River was a cultural crossroads, where a vast diversity of migrating people converged.
The Omo River rises in Ethiopia’s Shewa Highlands and flows for 760km though terraced hillsides, volcanic outcrops and fertile grasslands as far as the world’s greatest desert lake – Lake Turkana in Kenya.
But every year the Omo River swells, reaching its maximum level in August or September, when it flows depositing fertile silt on its banks, giving hope to thousands of the nomadic communities in the region.
“This nourishes our crops that include sorghum, and maize we plant on the flood plains. It is a mighty river and it will be a disaster if its cyclical process is disrupted,” regrets Edolm Aleyeer.
Experts argue that the turn of events at Omo Riveraffected food trend for the tribes in the region.
“The annual floods is the life-blood of the local communities,” says Dr David Turton of the Oxford University‘s African Studies Centre.
Experts say the life-giving river is threatened by government-sanctioned development schemes.
In July 2006, Ethiopia signed a contract with the Italian company, Salini Construction, to build Gibe II Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Gibe I and II have been completed).
The Gibe III will block the southwestern part of the river, ending the Omo’s natural flood cycle and jeopardising the tribes’ sophisticated flood retreat cultivation methods.
Tribes such as the Kwegu who rely on hunting, gathering and agriculture will be pushed to the brink by the inevitable reduction of fish stocks. “We depend on fish. They are like our cattle. We eat from the Omo River and we will not survive without flood-retreat agriculture,” lamented Eleyeer.
To add more pain on the communities, vast tracts of fertile farmlands are being leased to foreign companies to grow and export food as well as some cleared for sugarcane production by the government.
An independent report by Survival International paints a bleak future as the controversial Gibe II Damand violent evictions to clear way for plantations risk imminent catastrophe in the Lower Omo Valley.
The Ethiopia government has defended Gibe III Dam and argues that the environmental impact of the project would be minimal and that the dam is scarcely populated and there would be no mass relocation of the people.
Mr Gossaye Mengiste, the Ethiopian minister for Water and Energy insist that the dam will lessen evaporation in the downstream area in Sudan and Egypt.