The Forgotten Valley

The Gibe III dam began producing energy to support the Ethiopian economy. But the environmental and social impacts are more severe than expected. A few of these impacts are forced transfers, water scarcity and Lake Turkana in danger of extinction. And Gibe IV is on the way.

No access. Permission not guaranteed. Mails unanswered. Areas inaccessible for safety reasons. Embassy staff is discouraged from venturing into the region. Getting information on what is happening in Ethiopia’ s Omo Valley is not easy. Ethiopian authorities are nervous, and have closed access to the area. Tensions between the central government and the people of Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’ s Region have led to a blockade on movement in the region – including for journalists. Especially journalists.

The little news that does filter out comes from NGOs and their local partners. Stories surface about military abuses on local ethnic groups, like Daasanach, Konso and Mello, as the military tries to convince them to relocate and make room for large infrastructure projects and agribusiness. Increasing internal migration has also caused inter-tribal conflicts, land takeovers and watergrabbing. The task for various human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Survival and Re:Common, is tough.

According to Luca Manes from Re:Common, “the Lower Oma Valley tribes are violently evicted from their ancestral homes. Meanwhile, their pastures and agricultural lands have been turned into industrial plantations of sugar cane, cotton and agro-fuels. There is talk of beatings, abuse and general intimidation – not to mention unspeakable violence from Ethiopian soldiers.

Safe behind Omo Valley’ s turmoil stands one of the largest and most controversial African hydroelectric projects ever made: the Gibe III dam. To-date, the dam is the largest in Ethiopia. The dam is the kind of infrastructure project that can change a country’ s destiny: at 240 meters high, 630 meters wide at the ridge, it has a 150 km long dock to power turbines with a 1,870 megawatt capacity.

The dam’ s “big sister,” the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 6400 megawatt giant, is under construction along the Blue Nile (and a source of tension between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments). The Grand, along
with Gibe III, is the most important part of the Ethiopian government’ s aggressive strategy of energy investments. With growth increased to almost 10 percent, strongly supported by China, and a population of over 100 million people, Ethiopia aims to become a newly industrialized country. The government aims to transition from a strongly rural economy to an industrial and service-based economy. An ambitious goal, yes, but an attainable one.
It’ s a goal that is strongly supported by the incumbent Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. He is the successor to Meles Zenawi, who first saw hydroelectricity as the future for Ethiopia’ s development. Salini-Impregilo, the multinational Italian construction company for the two mega-dams, shared in a note that “Gibe III will significantly increase the electrical output of the East African country, with the goal of modernizing its economy and becoming a regional energy hub.

The project will be a revolution: “700,000 jobs created and five new-townswith dozens of “worker villages” to house plantation workers,” reads the Sugar Corporation’ s website. “But for the local populations the “revolution” has led to forced displacement, and land confiscations, for which no one has any kind of document to prove ownership, it has separated communities and is strenuous work,” says a source in the area reached by telephone – one of the few willing to speak – who for safety prefers to remain anonymous. “They confiscated the few phones around and made the area inaccessible to everyone. When the project is complete they will come back to open the roads, and everyone will have forgotten how it was before».

Narissa Allibhai has spent months in the Turkana region. She is interviewing locals to assess the potential impacts of the decreased water supply. “The drought and lowering of the lake’ s water level is altering relations between ethnic groups. Conflicts are on the rise; particularly among fishing communities as fishing areas are shrinking. The more the lake dries, the greater the conflicts between the groups. A village elder struck me with his harsh words. ‘ If we die of starvation, we will begin to fight.’ ”Among the people who have started to move are predominantly the Dasanach. They are relocating because of increasing clashes on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. The Dasanach are a tribe of farmers who were forced to transform themselves into a tribe of fishermen to survive. 

The Kenyan government remains on the sidelines, at least for the time being. “Turkana is one of the most marginalized parts of Kenya. The government of Mwai Kibaki (replaced in 2013 by Uhuru Kenyatta) had signed an agreement to import Ethiopia’ s hydropower. This is why the government today, although they have opened up a discussion table with Addis Ababa, has not taken any significant action,” continues Allabhai. The dams continue to multiply, while Turkana’ s ethnic groups are powerless against watergrabbing, against the misappropriation of their resources. They are powerless for their water.

Koysha and beyond

A dramatic new chapter in watergrabbing seems about to open on the Omo River. Although the Ethiopian government’ s performance (or not) analyses on the environmental and social impacts of Gibe III seem more and more clear (they have been incorrect or at least underestimated), Salini Impregilo has signed to start work on Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) for Gibe IV – 

The project’ s estimated price tag of 1.6 billion euros will, according to rumors, most likely be funded by the Financial and Insurance Export Services (SACE). The holding company 100-percent controlled by the Cassa depositi e prestiti group, a bank controlled in majority (80 percent) by the Italian Ministry of Economy. The project was assigned without competitive bidding to Salini. This already happened with the project Gibe III. Thanks to the work of engineer Pietrangeli, and the aggressive role of Salini (which merged in 2014 with Impregilo), Italy has designed and built almost all of Ethiopia’ s major hydroelectric plants since the seventies: Gilgel Gibe, Dire, Legadadi and Little Beles, and finally the work of wonders, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Although Ethiopians have flocked in droves to buy project bonds, the Gibe group remains a well-kept secret in order to smoothly complete the hydropower plants IV and V provided by 2025. For the moment, SACE has not given an official response to the request sent almost a year ago by Salini to Gibe IV. The pressure of parliament and civil society could push investors to reject the application to avoid finding an unwanted hot potato in their hands. At the time of press, SACE’ s press office declines to comment. 

For Felix Horne, field researcher for Human Rights Watch, this new development will further affect food security and the quality of life in the Omo Valley and around Lake Turkana. “This project will further increase water extraction,” explains Horne. “And the water level has gone down by one and a half meters since Gibe III went into operation, which makes us worry even more». 

«The Gibe III and IV dams are not unsustainable by definition. We have built dams for decades and the western world has greatly benefited,” says Sean Avery. “It would have been enough to correctly quantify the impacts, and it would have required meetings with the populations concerned by the project in Ethiopia and Kenya, and adequate compensation for their losses.” But this did not happen. 

TEXT:  Emanuele Bompan

PHOTOGRAPHY:  Fausto Podavini

MAPS: Riccardo Pravettoni

INFOGRAPHICS: Federica Fragapane



European Journalism Center  IDR Grant

CapHolding  Fondazione LIDA



Maririosa Iannelli, University of Genoa