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Large-scale irrigation

On 25 January 2011, the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, went to Jinka, the capital of South Omo Zone, to make a speech which was the centrepiece of the 13th Annual Pastoralists’ Day celebrations, held that year in Jinka. The burden of his speech was that work would soon begin on a huge commercial irrigation scheme in the Lower Omo which would lift local pastoralists out of ‘poverty and backwardness’ and give them a ‘modern life’.

A few days after the Prime Minister’s speech, it was reported in the Addis press that a total of 245,000 ha had been allocated to the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation in the Lower Omo, although only 150,000 ha of this were considered suitable for sugar cane production. Six cane crushing mills would be required to deal with the expected level of production and up to 100,000 jobs would be created (Addis Fortune, 2011). Other reports suggest that the plantations will be irrigated by two main canals, taking water from the Omo at the northern end of the project area. Starting in the north, Block 1 will occupy land currently used for flood retreat and rain-fed cultivation by Bodi, Kwegu and Mursi on both banks of the Omo, and a large area west of the river that currently lies within the Omo National Park. Block 2 will take more land from the Omo National Park and Block 3 will occupy land currently used by Nyangatom, Kara and Muguji for both cultivation and grazing. A further 74,000 ha in the more arid southern part of the Lower Basin, occupied principally by Dassanach, have been leased to private investors for irrigated farms. Finally, an additional 30,000 ha, is to be taken from the southwestern part of the Mago National Park, and added to the sugar plantations in due course. Based on these figures, the total irrigated area in the Lower Omo will eventually amount to at least 250,000 ha. making this by far the largest irrigation complex in Ethiopia and at least doubling the total irrigated area in the country.

The impact of potential irrigation development on anything like this scale is nowhere considered in the Gibe III impact assessments commissioned by the dam builders.  This has enabled the downstream impact of the dam to be discussed without reference to its potentially devastating, if indirect, transboundary impacts on the ecology and level of Lake Turkana, which receives almost 90 per cent of its inflow from the Omo. Drawing on projections of total irrigable area made both by the Gibe III Economic and Social Impact Assessment and the Omo-Gibe Master Plan, Sean Avery, in a study commissioned by the African Development Bank, estimated that potential irrigation abstraction will cause the lake level to drop by up to 20 metres. Amongst other consequences, this will have a significant adverse impact on the productivity of the Lake Turkana fisheries (for report click here).

What will the ‘rapid development’ and ‘modern life’ promised by Meles to his Jinka audience mean, in practice? The hope seems to be that those who are forcibly dispossessed of their land and livelihoods by the sugar plantations will benefit automatically from generalised economic and infrastructural development and ‘modern’ forms of agriculture. Unfortunately, the huge literature that now exists on the human impact of development-forced displacement and resettlement makes this a forlorn hope. Countless studies from around the world have shown that development projects which forcibly displace people and/or restrict their access to vital resources, need to be accompanied by detailed plans for compensation, benefit sharing and livelihood reconstruction, worked out in collaboration with the affected population. Otherwise, the majority of those affected will suffer increased levels of economic and social impoverishment, leading to physical and mental ill-health and, in some cases, premature death.

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