If current plans to create new plantations continue to move forward, Lake Turkana could drop as much as 16 to 22 meters.
According to Human Rights Watch and International Rivers, virtually all of the traditional lands of the 7,000-member Bodi indigenous group have been cleared in the last 15 months, without adequate consultation or compensation. HRW has also documented the forced resettlement of some indigenous people in the area.
The land clearing is part of a broader Ethiopian government development scheme in the Omo Valley - a United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site -including dam construction, sugar plantations, and commercial agriculture.
500,000 indigenous people left without water
The project will consume the vast majority of the water in the Omo River basin, potentially devastating the livelihoods of the 500,000 indigenous people in Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya who directly or indirectly rely on the Omo's waters for their livelihoods.
"Ethiopia can develop its land and resources but it shouldn't run roughshod over the rights of its indigenous communities", said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"The people who rely on the land for their livelihoods have the right to compensation and the right to reject plans that will completely transform their lives."
Forced relocation and land clearance
A prerequisite to the government's development plans for the Lower Omo Valley is the relocation of 150,000 indigenous people who live in the vicinity of the sugar plantations into permanent sedentary villages under the government's deeply unpopular 'villagization' program.
Under this program, people are to be moved into sedentary villages and provided with schools, clinics, and other infrastructure. As has been seen in other parts of Ethiopia, these movements are not all voluntary.
Satellite images analyzed by Human Rights Watch show devastating changes to the Lower Omo Valley between November 2010 and January 2013, with large areas originally used for grazing cleared of all vegetation and new roads and irrigation canals crisscrossing the valley.
Lands critical for the livelihoods of the agro-pastoralist Bodi and Mursi peoples have been cleared for the sugar plantations. These changes are happening without their consent or compensation, local people told Human Rights Watch.
Free and informed consent?
Governments have a duty to consult and cooperate with indigenous people to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.
The imagery also shows the impact of a rudimentary dam built in July 2012 that diverted the waters of the Omo River into the sugar plantations. Water rapidly built up behind the shoddily built mud structure before breaking it twice.
The reservoir created behind the dam forced approximately 200 Bodi families to flee to high ground, leaving behind their crops and their homes.
The lure of year-round commercial agriculture
In a 2012 report Human Rights Watch warned of the risk to livelihoods and potential for increased conflict and food insecurity if the government continued to clear the land.
The report also documented how government security forces used violence and intimidation to make communities in the Lower Omo Valley relocate from their traditional lands, threatening their entire way of life with no compensation or choice of alternative livelihoods.
The development in the Lower Omo Valley depends on the construction upstream of a much larger hydropower dam - the Gibe III, which will regulate river flows to support year-round commercial agriculture.
A new film produced by International Rivers, 'A Cascade of Development on the Omo River', reveals how and why the Gibe III will cause hydrological havoc on both sides of the Kenya-Ethiopia border.
Lake Turkana - waters could drop 22 meters
Most significantly, the changes in river flow caused by the dam and associated irrigated plantations could cause a huge drop in the water levels of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake and another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Lake Turkana receives 90% of its water from the Omo River and is projected to drop by about two meters during the initial filling of the dam, which is estimated to begin around May 2014.
If current plans to create new plantations continue to move forward, the lake could drop as much as 16 to 22 meters. The average depth of the lake is just 31 meters.
The river flow past the Gibe III will be almost completely blocked beginning in 2014. According to government documents, it will take up to three years to fill the reservoir, during which the Omo River's annual flow could drop by as much as 70%.
After this initial shock, regular dam operations will further devastate ecosystems and local livelihoods. Changes to the river's flooding regime will harm agricultural yields, prevent the replenishment of important grazing areas, and reduce fish populations - all critical resources for livelihoods of certain indigenous groups.
These developments must be halted
The government of Ethiopia should halt development of the sugar plantations and the water offtakes until affected indigenous communities have been properly consulted and give their free, prior, and informed consent to the developments, Human Rights Watch and International Rivers said.
The impact of all planned developments in the Omo / Turkana basin on indigenous people's livelihoods should be assessed through a transparent, independent impact assessment process.
"If Ethiopia continues to bulldoze ahead with these developments, it will devastate the livelihoods of half a million people who depend on the Omo River", said Lori Pottinger, head of International Rivers' Ethiopia program.
"It doesn't have to be this way - Ethiopia has options for managing this river more sustainably, and pursuing developments that won't harm the people who call this watershed home."
Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley is one of the most isolated and under-developed areas in East Africa. At least eight different groups call the Omo River Valley home and the livelihood of each of these groups is intimately tied to the Omo River and the surrounding lands.
Many of the indigenous people that inhabit the valley are agro-pastoralist, growing crops along the Omo River and grazing cattle.
In 2010, Ethiopia announced plans for the construction of Africa's tallest dam, the 1,870 megawatt Gibe III dam on the Omo River. Controversy has dogged the Gibe III dam ever since.
The Ethiopian government announced even more ambitious plans for the region in 2011, including the development of at least 245,000 hectares of irrigated state-run sugar plantations. Downstream, the water-intensive sugar plantations, will depend on irrigation canals.
Although there have been some independent assessments of the Gibe dam project and its impact on river flow and Lake Turkana, to date the Ethiopian government has not published any environmental or social impact assessments for the sugar plantations and other commercial agricultural developments in the Omo valley.
Funding from China, World Bank, African Development Bank
Of all the major funders who considered the dam, only China's Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) provided financing.
The World Bank, African Development Bank, and European Investment Bank all declined to fund it, though the World Bank and African Development Bank have financed related power lines.
According to the regional government plan for villagization in Lower Omo, the World Bank-supported Pastoral Community Development Project (PCDP) is funding some of the infrastructure in the new villages.
Despite concerns over human rights abuses associated with the villagization program that were communicated to Bank management, in December 2013 the World Bank Board approved funding of the third phase of the PCDP III.
PCDP III ostensibly provides much-needed services to pastoral communities throughout Ethiopia, but according to government documents PCDP also pays for infrastructure being used in the sedentary villages that pastoralists are being moved to.
The US Congress has acted - but not the UK
The United States Congress in January included language in the 2014 Appropriations Act that puts conditions on US development assistance in the Lower Omo Valley requiring that there should be:
- consultation with local communities;
- that the assistance "supports initiatives of local communities to improve their livelihoods";
- and that no activities should be supported that directly or indirectly involve forced evictions.
However other donors have not publicly raised concerns about Ethiopia's Lower Omo development plans.
Justine Greening, the British Secretary of State for International Development, in 2012 stated that her Department for International Development (DFID) was not able to "substantiate the human rights concerns" in the Lower Omo Valley - even though DFID officials heard these concerns directly from impacted communities in January 2012.
This article was originally published by Human Rights Watch.
Note: The original HRW article does not employ the phrase 'slow genocide'. The term has been applied in the headline and introduction paragraph by The Ecologist as we believe that the inevitable outcome of depriving the Indigenous Peoples of the Omo Valley of their land and water will be to extinguish their social and cultural identity, while also threatening the physical survival of many individuals and families.