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June 19, 2019

Giant Dam Project, Irrigated Sugar Plantations Disrupt Ethiopian Communities

A giant dam and irrigated sugar plantations are “wreaking havoc” in southern Ethiopia and threaten to wipe out tens of thousands of indigenous peoples , a US-based thinktank has claimed. The Oakland Institute says that while the Ethiopian government has made considerable progress on human rights under prime minister Abiy Ahmed, it has yet to address the impact of state development plans on indigenous populations in the lower Omo valley, where people face loss of livelihoods, starvation, and violent conflict .

Acute hunger is now widespread, the organisation said in a report, due to blockage of the Omo River by Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam. Since late 2015, the dam has stopped the river’s annual flood, a natural event that the valley’s inhabitants have relied upon for centuries for farming. As a result, entire communities have been tipped into destitution.

Responding to the report, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and electricity , said that while the government accepts there are problems, “the points raised in the paper are not properly documented or balanced.” Seleshi said solutions had been put in place to mitigate the impact of the dam, including small-scale irrigation and outgrower schemes.

According to the report, however, such promises have not materialised. Moreover, said the study, communities claim they were tricked into leaving their ancestral land in order to make way for sugar plantations built by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation as part of its mammoth Omo-Kuraz sugar development project (OKSDP). The project, a 100,000 hectare (247,000 acre) irrigated agricultural scheme, is fed by the waters of the Omo.

Indigenous populations were told the sugar plantations would bring hundreds of thousands of new jobs to the region. They were pressed to give up nomadic livestock-herding and adopt sedentary lifestyles, as part of the Ethiopian government’s controversial “villagisation” programme, which has since been halted. Some were threatened with having their cattle seized or killed by police.

The report alleges that resettlement sites are not big enough to feed families, and that promised services – schooling, healthcare, grinding mills, food aid, and electricity – either remain undelivered or have been woefully inadequate. Only a small percentage of new jobs have materialised, with a large majority given to migrant workers from other regions of Ethiopia.

Seleshi countered that the Sugar Corporation had spent 79m Ethiopian birr (US$ 2.7m; June 2019) constructing infrastructure and social services in the valley, including schools and health centres.

This is Oakland’s fourth report on South Omo. In 2013 it accused the Ethiopian government of using killings, beatings and rapes in order to force indigenous communities to accept the sugar cane projects. It also accused western aid agencies of covering up evidence of the abuses. Other international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Survival International have also condemned the government for abuses in South Omo in the past.

Yet there are some signs of a change in approach. At an April seminar on South Omo’s livelihood challenges,  government minister Seyoum Mesfin told visiting academics and journalists that the new government recognised certain “development interventions in the pastoralist areas … came with a cost.” The minister ... and added that the government “will not allow a repeat of those situations”.

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