The Scramble for Water, Land and Oil in the Lower Omo Valley

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The remote Omo watershed in East Africa encompasses life-giving rivers and a huge desert lake in both Kenya and Ethiopia. Home to a number of tribal peoples who make their living from the land and waters, this region is now undergoing rapid transformation from major industrial projects that are taking resources from local people. At the core of this industrialization is Gibe III Dam.

Ethiopia has repeatedly and deliberately ignored the ways that Gibe III Dam and related plantations affect downstream livelihoods and Lake Turkana. Externalizing costs, and isolating developments from their regional context, is one way that local people are often marginalized and harmed. The dam is just one of many major recent developments ongoing in the region. The discovery of groundwater in northern Kenya in 2013, possibly with an amount equivalent to that of Lake Turkana, could provide a dependable source of water for many people and livestock in an arid region if managed sustainably and with local needs in mind. Additionally, vast reserves of recoverable oil have recently been found in Turkana’s Lokichar basin. 

The people who live downstream of the Gibe III are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. More than 94% of the people around Lake Turkana are below the poverty level. Their livelihoods have already been hit hard by drought, depletion of resources, and increasing conflict, further limiting their ability to survive in this harsh region. 

This report provides a broad view of the situation in the Lower Omo Valley and sheds light on who will ultimately benefit and who will be harmed. This report presents basic information on the groundwater and oil discoveries in Turkana, Ethiopia’s methods of financing the Gibe dams, Kenya’s support for the Gibe III through power purchases from Ethiopia, and various issues surrounding the agricultural developments in the Omo Basin. 

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Womens Group around Lake TurkanaWomens Group around Lake TurkanaNarissa Allibhai

At this time, urgent national and regional efforts are required to prevent the collapse of the Lake Turkana and Omo River ecosystems and local people from becoming more impoverished and disempowered. International Rivers recommends that Ethiopia, Kenya, international bodies, and companies acting in the region commit to the following activities:

1.  Ethiopia should engage with international experts and with Kenya on the possibility of developing an integrated water-resources management plan for the Lower Omo. The plan would be guided by a legitimate region-wide environmental and socio-economic impact analysis that considers all developments in the region. 

While the plan is constructed, Ethiopia should immediately limit alterations and abstractions of the Omo River. This could include halting the filling of the Gibe III, putting Gibe IV and V on hold, and stopping further development of agricultural plantations and construction of irrigation works until measures are put into place to avoid the shrinking of Lake Turkana and maintain local livelihoods.

2. Ethiopia, Kenya, and private companies should involve affected peoples and civil society in the regional development process. These bodies should engage in an honest and open dialogue with affected peoples and commit to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for indigenous peoples to ensure a level playing field during negotiations. Bringing local people into the development process is not only ethically important, but will also improve development outcomes for all, and help to avoid future conflicts. Although the government may not currently be taking these people’s opinions into account, civil society groups have actively tried to bring their voices into the ongoing dialogue.

These bodies should compensate people affected by Gibe III and agricultural and oil developments and conduct an accurate study determining the amounts owed, which would be part of a thorough cost-benefit analysis that takes into account ecosystem services and social costs.