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How a Big Dam Fuels Landgrabs, Hunger and Conflict in Ethiopia

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As food prices rise, the lands of rural communities are being snatched up for plantations at an alarming rate around the world. According to the World Bank, large agricultural land deals made up an area bigger than California in 2009 alone. A new report documents how the controversial Gibe III Dam is fueling landgrabs in Southwestern Ethiopia right now. These grabs will compound the dam's impacts on poor communities and their unique ecosystems.

The Omo River is the lifeline of the Lower Omo Valley and the only major source of water of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake. About 500,000 indigenous people are eking out a living from the fragile ecosystems of the river and lake.

The Gibe III Dam, which is currently under construction, will disrupt the river's annual flood cycle and lower the water levels of Lake Turkana. Critics have long feared that once the dam is built, the Ethiopian government will establish plantations in the Omo Valley and use the regulated water flow to irrigate export crops. The government dismissed such fears as baseless, and argued that the dam would not reduce the amount of water in the Omo River and Lake Turkana.

Now that the dam is being built, the government is showing its true colors. An official map of the Lower Omo Valley delineates three blocks of land with a total of 245,000 hectares (close to 1,000 square miles) that will be turned into sugar plantations, to be managed by a state-owned sugar company. A briefing paper by the Oakland Institute, a research and advocacy organization, suggests that in addition, 11 smaller concessions have been awarded for private cotton plantations.

Growing thirsty crops such as sugar cane and cotton for the world market does not make sense in a region that is scarce in water and prone to hunger and resource conflicts. The dam and the associated land grabs will turn the Gibe III hydropower project into a social and environmental disaster on several accounts:

  • A scientific study commissioned by the African Development Bank found that the Gibe III Dam will have serious impacts on Lake Turkana even without the plantations. Withdrawing large amounts of water for irrigation agriculture may push its ecosystem over the edge. The study estimates that irrigation projects could cut the amount of water in Lake Turkana by half and lead to a dramatic drop in its surface level by 20 meters.
  • The Lower Omo Valley is no no-man's land. It has been inhabited since time immemorial by eight indigenous peoples, including the Dassanech, Mursi and Nyangatom. If other landgrabs in Ethiopia are a model, the local populations will be kicked out from their lands without consent or compensation, and forced into resettlement camps. The government argues that the plantations will create jobs, but such jobs typically go to outsiders and not to indigenous people who have never been part of the formal economy.
  • The sugar plantations will occupy and affect unique ecosystems that have been protected as national parks and World Heritage Sites in Ethiopia and Kenya. In June 2011, the UN's World Heritage Committee urged the Ethiopian government to "immediately halt all construction" on the Gibe III Dam and to invite a monitoring mission to review the project's impacts on Lake Turkana. With the new plans for large-scale plantations, the government demonstrates its contempt for its international obligations.
  • Even where water is not scarce, large-scale irrigation projects have a bad track record in Africa, and have proven to be less effective at reducing poverty than support for the rainfed agriculture of poor farmers. A World Bank report in 2005 summarized the widespread economic, social, environmental and public health problems of large-scale irrigation projects and concluded that "investing in agricultural water management for rainfed farmers must be a priority."

As the Oakland Institute documents, the land and water grabs in the Lower Omo Valley appear imminent. Access roads have already been built, and the people who live in the target area are constantly being harassed and intimidated by the Ethiopian army. As the Institute's researcher told us after a recent visit to the area, security forces regularly visit the local villages and beat up or detain people who don't support the sugar plantations. Many villagers, the researcher told us, now run for cover whenever outsiders appear near their settlements for fear of repression.

The sugar plantations in the Omo Valley are not an isolated case. In a separate report, the Oakland Institute estimated that the Ethiopian government has turned over 14,000 square miles of agricultural lands to investors since 2008 -- usually without any benefits for the local people. The World Bank documented large-scale agricultural land deals to the amount of 175,000 square miles for 2009 alone.

Ethiopia is the world's second largest recipient of development aid. The United States, the World Bank, the European Union and the United Kingdom are among its major donors. Their assistance supports a wide variety of activities, from food aid to the government budget from which the Gibe III Dam is being funded. These donors should no longer turn a blind eye to a project that will cause environmental collapse, hunger and conflict, and violates Ethiopia's international obligations.

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