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.

Gibe III was inaugurated December 17, 2016, and is part of a cascade of five dams, including four on the Omo River. Two other dams are already in operation: the Gilgel Gibe I and Gibe II (420 megawatts). One dam, Gibe IV (2200 megawatts), also known as Koysha hydroelectric plant is still in the planning phase.

On the one hand, Ethiopia’ s hydroelectric strategy will support development of the ninth African economy. Ethiopia’ s economy has the lowest per capita GDP of African nations, largely because of strong social inequalities. On the other hand, the strategy is embroiled in controversy, both in Ethiopia and also in neighboring Kenya.

«The dam was not planned with enough attention to social and environmental impacts,” explains Rudo Sanyaga, director for International Rivers in Africa. The organization specializes in analyzing the impacts of great hydroelectric projects. “To ensure electricity in the capital and in the rich north, the government has not fully considered the impact on the tribal people who have lived for millennia along the Omo».


  • Toward the road to Lomo. Panoramic view of the Omo River. By closing the Gibe III dam, this area of the valley has been copletely submerged and now there’s an artificial lake that is approximatelly 150 KM long.

  • A man from the Layerè ethnicity is drinking the water of the Omo River. During the flooding period, flooding make the land all around the river very fertile and perfect for agriculture. Some expert believe that the presence of the dams, once completed, will reduce the quantity of water in the Omo River to almost 60% and this will stop reduce the extension of the fluvial forests and will stop the natural flooding.

  • A mountain is eroded by cranes in order to create a new road from Sawla to Jinka. This road will reduce the travelling time between Sawla and Jinka by one hour.

  • Loma, south of Addis Abeba, during the construction of the dam Gibe III.

  • One of the many working site in the area between Sodo and Jinka. All the working sites are managed by Chinese companies and coordinated by engineers, while the manual work is done by Ethiopians. Many of the workers come from Addis Abeba or close by villages.

  • Omorate area. A cotton field. All the lands in this area are now use to cultivate cotton. Part of this plantations are owned by the Turkish. In the last few years, Turkey is investing in this area, exclusively to cultivate cotton.

  • Annamursi village. A goat takes shelter under a truck that transport building material needed to build one of the four sites needed for the statal project Omo Kuraz Sugar Factories Project. Once every site will be built, it will be able to produce 556,000 tons of sugar and 52,324 cubic meter of ethanol each year. This vast area will be water using the water of the Omo River, that will be taken here with a duct, that is now under construction, that will be 381 meters long and 22.4 meters high.

  • The Gibe III Dam. At the moment, Gibe III is the highest dam in Central Africa. 240 meters high, ones in full regine, it will produce an outcoming energy if 1879 MW. Statistics studies says that once completed, the cost of the dam will be 15% of the annual GDP of Ethiopia, becoming the biggest investment project ever made in all of the African continent. The dam will create an artificial lake. Once filled, the lake will be 150 KM long and it will measure 211 squarekilometers.

  • Omo Valley. Karo village. A small solar panel is used to have enough energy to power a light bulb and for charging small electronic. The village of karo as well as all the other villages in the Omo Valley have no electricity.

  • Omorate area. A few kilometre from the border with Kenya. The main road that leands to Kenya has been recently asphalted by Chinese companies. Even though it’s asphalted, this road can not be taken by trucks, as the asphalt was made without taking into consideration the heat and the resistance to such weight. Trucks driving to Kenya need to take the parrallel unpaved road.

Since Gibe III’ s planning began in 2006, it became clear that the project had numerous environmental implications and unclear financials. The World Bank, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the African Development Bank have decreased financial support for the project over the years, which has forced the Ethiopian government to directly finance construction with the support of a Chinese loan of 440 million euros.

According to research by the three organizations, International Rivers, RE:common and Survival, Gibe III alone has changed the lives of at least 400,000 people living along the Omo. The river stretches hundreds of kilometers downstream from the dam to the basin of lake Turkana.

What’ s behind these changes? Transformation of the river’ s flow has stopped up alluvial floodplains, which are essential for traditional agriculture. Blocking nutritional elements brought by Omo’ s current has reduced the fertility of the land. A series of mega agribusiness construction projects are transforming the territory and culture of local ethnic communities. In some cases, the projects are forcing relocation.

«The dam has put an end to the Omo River’ s seasonal flooding, which 100,000 people directly depend on to water their herds, fish and cultivate their fields. Another 100,000 people are indirectly dependent,” explains Francesca Casella of International Survival, the worldwide movement for the rights ofindigenous people. “The Ethiopian government and the construction company did not consult the people in the valley before starting construction on the dam, and they had also announced artificial flooding as compensation. Years later, not enough water has been released to sustain indigenous peoples’ survival. Thousands of people are at risk of dying from hunger.

According to Joint Lenders Fact Finding, the investors’ associations’ verification mission commissioned in 2009 by the builder, “the direct impacts attributed to the project were minimal.” The overall effect on the populations upstream of the dam, continues the text, would be “mild, involving only 58 rural households which were previously consulted.” We contacted Salini Impregilo to find out if the government requested an analysis on project’ s impact on the valley, but did not receive a response to numerous emails.

Water for plantations

The government’ s plans involve more than just electricity. Gibe III’ s construction created a massive reservoir of 14 million cubic meters. What does one do with all this water “tamed” by the dam – especially in a region with predominantly non-irrigated agriculture? The answer seems to be large-scale monocultures, possibly related to biofuel plants. The first to jump on the bandwagon was Sugar Corporation, an Ethiopian national company specialized in producing refined sugar and ethanol. Through the Omo-Kuraz Sugar Project, Gibe III’ s reservoir irrigates 175,000 hectares of commercial plantations to produce exports to Europe and China.

To make room for sugar cane culture, villages and entire communities have been relocated. According to Sugar Corp. documents, five processing plants were created on-site with the support of Chinese companies like Complant and JJIEC. Approximately 1.3 million tons of sugar and 130,810 cubic meters of ethanol per year roll out of the plants through gates that to-date are only connected to main roads by a network of dirt roads. The fuel will be used in cogeneration to power on-site plants of 415 megawatts, feeding 275 megawatts to the national grid through a high-voltage line. The World Bank finances the line, with the goal of linking Gibe III and the future Gibe IV.

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».

Even diplomacy has jumped into action in an effort to bring clarity to the activists’ information and the deathly silence of the Ethiopian government on the impacts of Gibe III and the Kuraz Sugar Project. A delegation composed of representatives of twenty-eight diplomat donors of international aid to Ethiopia has confirmed in a report the lack of adequate information and consultation with the people involved in the transfer. In addition, the fact that tens of thousands of people are or will be forced to leave their traditional way of life, willy-nilly, without any certain economic alternatives. No evidence of the use of violence has been documented.

An Italian Parliament resolution, backed in June 2016 by Parliamentarians Chiara Braga and Lia Quartapelle, came out as in Italy, one of Ethiopia’ s major partners for trade and development, senses growing concern about the impacts of Gibe III and the new Gibe IV and V projects to be built in the future. The text criticizes the project, particularly “regarding the socio-environmental impact of the lower Omo Valley and the forced relocation of entire indigenous communities, and on the loss of livelihoods from taking away agriculture”.

The resolution charges the Italian government “to consider the involvement of Italian institutions in the new dam projects in Ethiopia according to the principle of coherence for development policies, and to raise awareness in this regard to private national groups, taking care to acquire additional items of information in accordance with the OECD guidelines on the environmental and anthropological impacts in terms of biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples”.


  • Omo Valley. Along the oriental shore og the Omo River near the Karo village, where children are playing by jumping in the sand. The Karo village is located in a natural bights of the Omo River. Karos are a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000 people and lives thanks to fishing and cultivation made possible by the floodings of the Omo River.The Omo Valley, one of the most important place for its peculiar biodiversity despite the desert or semi-desert ambient.

  • Surma village. Two Surma women at the entrance of their hut. The typical lip plate are used only by women and symbolises the sexual maturity. The Surma and Mursi population use this ornament and are among the most photographed subjects between the turists, which now have to pay in order to take pictures. This practice is changing a lot the local habit and the economy of the tribues.

  • Omo Valley. Hamer ethnicity. Hamer women in line at the mill in order to grind the wheat. Wheat, together with sorghum, is one of the main sustenance for the most of the ethnicity living in the Omo Valley.

  • Village of the Mursi ethnicity. A Mursi man drinks goat milk and blood. Many men from the village own a Kalashnikov to protect their area.

  • Omorate zone. Omo Valley. Omo Valley, near the border with Kenya. Child of the Dassanech ethnicity in front of the Omo River. The scarification on the shoulder are typical of the ethnicities in the south of Ethiopia and indicate the transition from childhood to adulthood and the number of preys killed while hunting.

  • Approximatelly 40 KM from Addis Abeba towards Butajira The new electic line crosses the old one. Only 20% of the electicity produced will be used for the country, the remaining 80% is already been sold by the Ethiopian Government to the adjoining nations. Between 2014 and 2015, GDP increased by 10.6% due also to the foreign investors who thanks to the development projects of the last years made by the Government, are changing the aspect of this country.

  • Bodi and Konso’s market. A man just sold a cow to a team of Chinese. The cow will be taken into the building site of the sugar cane factory, slaughtered and used for the canteen. Untill a couple of years ago at the market barter was used, or natural products were sold for a few Birr. The presence of European and Chinese investors in the area made a change in the local economy by introdicing money, which are used by the members of the tribes mainly to buy alcohol.

  • Annamursi village. A Bodi men inside a local bar. Alcohol is widely used in this area and alcoholism is becoming one of the main issues between the different ethnicities of the Omo Valley.

  • Omo Valley. Khat house. A young man using Khat inside a house that allowes the usage of drugs in the Annamursi village.

  • Omo Valley, five years later. Along the oriental shore of the Omo River, near the Karo village. The Karo village is situated in a natural bight of the Omo River. Karos are a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000 people. Next to the village at the moment a resort has been built. In the background, cotton plantations have replaced rainforest.Controlling the Omo River, will allow to make a huge government project possible: the Omo Kuraz Sugar Factories Project, which sees the cultivation of pproximately 245,000 hectares of land for the roduction of sugar cane, to be used to produce both ethanol and sugar.

The role of the Italian group will now be in the hands of the Italian National Point of Contact of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The role should be evaluated in a non-binding way as to the specific responsibility of the construction company, which Survival International has denounced in substantial documentation given to technicians. “As a member of the Global Compact (editors note: the UN initiative for sustainable development in enterprises), Salini Impregilo should pledge to respect human rights and to make sure to not be, directly or indirectly, complicit in abuse,” explains Francesca Casella. “Without a complaint mechanism, the OECD guidelines appear to be the only way the company can be held responsible».

The onus now is on the OECD’ s technical offices to give a clear answer on the true impacts of the Gibe project on the Omo in Ethiopian territory, and to evaluate any errors in the environmental assessment.

The impacts on Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world. Located in the heart of the Rift Valley, the only way to arrive is three days of 4x4 from Nairobi. Only local guides can recognize the often poorly-marked dirt roads. Three rivers feed the lake: the Omo north, Turkwel and Kerio south. Turkana takes its name from the noble tribes of Turkana, the “people of the gray ox.” Its banks are home to numerous tribes like the Dasaanach who live by farming and fishing, once considered taboo. “But today, with the increasingly scarce water, more and more people compete for Lake Turkana’ s fish,” explains Narissa Allibhai, founder of Save Lake Turkana Movement, a group dedicated to protecting the lake.

Behind the lowering water level is, once again, the Gibe III dam. The cradle of mankind, now a UNESCO protected site, runs the risk of disappearing. According to Sean Avery, a hydrologist from the African Studies Center of Oxford, the lake is overexposed to water extraction linked to agribusiness projects, supported by the reservoirs of Gibe III and IV.

«The degradation and lowering of Lake Turkana’ s level in Kenya – on whose water and fish supply over 300,000 indigenous people depend – could reach a critical level in a few years,”says Avery, reached by telephone. “The result could be equivalent to the drying up of the Aral Sea, or to what is happening to the Dead Sea and Lake Chad. Estimates are that the levy could reduce water levels in the Omo Delta by 50 percent.” This would result in a reduction of about 20 meters in water level (the lake’ s average depth is 30 meters). “The lake may split itself into two smaller lakes, one to the north fed by the Omo, and one to the south, which would survive thanks to the Kerio and Turkwel rivers.

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

WEB:   Gianluca Cecere

Thanks for the support

European Journalism Center   IDR Grant
CapHolding   Fondazione LIDA

Thanks for the contributions

Marirosa Iannelli, University of Genoa