Starvation, disease: Tribes of Lower Omo bear the brunt of development projects

Oakland Institute report looks into condition of Ethiopian Indigenous communities displaced for dams, sugarcane plantations

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Wednesday 15 February 2023
This new field research reveals the true impact of development projects on Indigenous communities. Photo: iStock
This new field research reveals the true impact of development projects on Indigenous communities. Photo: iStock This new field research reveals the true impact of development projects on Indigenous communities. Photo: iStock

Indigenous tribes in southwestern Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley are suffering from starvation and diseases after being displaced from their land for the construction of a dam and the installation of large-scale sugarcane plantations, according to a new report. 

According to Dam and Sugar Plantations Yield Starvation and Death in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley by Oakland Institute, the hunger and health crisis in the Omo Valley caused by the Gibe III Dam and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project (KSDP) has been completely ignored.

Read more: Indigenous peoples’ health needs special attention: UN

For years, the Oakland Institute has raised the alarm about the threats that the Gibe III Dam and sugarcane plantations pose to the indigenous communities, including Kwegu, Bodi and Mursi tribes, in the region. This new field research reveals the true impact of development projects on Indigenous communities

Despite the urgent need for humanitarian assistance, the government and relief agencies have so far failed to respond to calls for help. World Vision distributed wheat bags in November 2022, but this aid is far from sufficient to cover the need and it is unclear if it will continue.

More food and medical care is urgently needed, along with the return of the land to the indigenous groups who have lived in this region, said the Oakland Institute. 

For the past 17 years, these indigenous communities have come under threat as the Ethiopian government has pushed forward with its plans to transform the region, the report said. 

In 2006, the then-government began constructing the Gibe III Dam to increase Ethiopia’s energy potential and enable the development of large-scale irrigated plantations downstream, the paper added. 

By 2011, the government embarked upon KSDP — a massive sugarcane plantation project with five associated factories that was originally designated 245,000 hectares, located downstream from the dam.

Since inception, the Gibe III Dam and KSDP have severely deteriorated the livelihoods of Indigenous communities in the region, the report said. The projects have wiped out livestock, driven mass displacement and decimated local communities’ ability to make a living, leading to widespread hunger.

One of the most severe consequences of the Gibe III Dam, completed in 2015, started when the government started filling the reservoir upstream. This has put an end to natural floods. 

Read more: COVID-19, climate crisis: 7.8 million across east Africa pushed to starvation

Local communities are increasingly dependent on the fickle rains for bush cultivation and the sale of cattle to buy grain. 

The Bodi and Kwegu have attempted to cultivate crops near the sugarcane plantation. However, these efforts were thwarted by employees of the sugar factory, who cleared and destroyed these crops, the paper claimed. 

Bodi villagers have reportedly needed to direct water from the canal into their fields at night because workers of the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation have banned them from using it during the daytime.

Malnutrition, disease taking lives

In October 2022, 22 Mursi villagers died of malnutrition near the Mago checkpoint, the paper said. Locals estimate that every family in the area has lost two or three children to malnutrition and leishmania. 

Currently, the Kwegu and Mursi are suffering from an outbreak of chickenpox. Additionally, they are also experiencing a measles outbreak, which started in 2021. 

The Mursi are most impacted and villagers report that forty Mursi children have died from the disease, the report said. Mursi children are also struck by malaria and leishmania. In addition to this, cholera has appeared in the area since 2020.

Read more: Climate resilient agriculture systems: The way ahead

Despite the promise that KSDP would bring jobs, the few made available to the Kwegu, Mursi and Bodi are low-paid — primarily consisting of hunting buffalo that eat the sugarcane for the men and removing crushed sugarcane refuse for the women. These jobs pay between 400 to 1,500 birr (US$7-US$28) per month.

These situations have reportedly forced villagers to eat bush leaves to survive, while others go hungry because they cannot find anything to subside on at all, the paper said.

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