It rises in Ethiopia's Shewa Highlands, and flows for 760 kms through terraced hillsides, volcanic outcrops and fertile grasslands as far as the world's greatest desert lake, Lake Turkana, in Kenya.
The lower valley of the Omo River is believed by some historians to have been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years, where a vast diversity of migrating peoples have converged. Today, at least eight different tribes speaking six different languages (the Bodi (Me'en), Daasanach, Kara (or Karo), Kwegu (or Muguji), Mursi and Nyangatom) live along the lower reaches of the river. Many are a blend of nomadic herdsmen and shifting agriculturalists. They travel the area in search of water and grazing lands for their cattle, goats and sheep. They also depend on the river for their livelihood, having developed ecological practices that are intricately adapted to the semi-arid climate and the flooding cycles of the river.
Every year the Omo swells, reaching its maximum level in August or September, when it overflows, depositing a fertile silt on its riverbanks as it retreats. This nourishes crops such as sorghum, corn and maize planted on the flood plains. Then the mighty river retreats, and the cyclical process begins again. 'The annual flood is the life-blood of the local population.' said Dr. David Turton, of Oxford University's African Studies Centre.
Yet while Ethiopia suffers from the worst drought in 60 years, with 4.5 million people in Ethiopia in need of food and rates of malnutrition-related deaths reaching 'alarming' levels in many parts of the country, the life-giving river is threatened by government-sanctioned development schemes.
In July 2006, Ethiopia signed a contract with the Italian company Salini Costruttori to build Gibe III, the biggest hydroelectric dam in sub-saharan Africa (dams I and II have already been built). This dam will block the southwestern part of the river, so ending the Omo's natural flood cycle and jeopardizing the tribes' sophisticated flood-retreat cultivation methods. Tribes such as the Kwegu who rely on hunting, gathering and agriculture will be pushed to the brink by the inevitable reduction in fish stocks. 'All but two tribes combine agriculture with pastoralism, and none could survive without 'flood- retreat' or 'recession' agriculture,' said Dr. Turton. This fear is echoed by a Kwegu man. 'We depend on the fish,' he said. 'They are like our cattle. We eat from the Omo River'.
The following year, Ethiopia did not object to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that confirmed, 'States shall consult and co-operate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned to obtain their free and informed consent to the approval of any project affecting their lands or other resources'. Yet in the intervening years, not only have most of the 90,000 tribal people who will be directly affected by Gibe III not been consulted about the 240 metre dam, but many are entirely unaware of it. A USAID official, who visited the Lower Omo in January 2009 to assess the impacts of Gibe III, reported that the indigenous communities knew either nothing or virtually nothing about the project. And Ethiopia's President, Meles Zenawi, has told reporters that Gibe III will be completed 'whether you like it or not.'
In addition to the construction of Gibe III, Survival International recently discovered that vast tracts of fertile farmland in the Omo Valley are being leased to foreign companies to grow and export food, as well as being cleared for vast state-run plantations to produce export crops and crops for the Ethiopian market, notably sugar-cane.
'It seems nonsensical that the Ethiopian government is simultaneously requesting $75 million for humanitarian assistance while leasing land and building dams that will have serious consequences on the food supplies of 90,000of its citizens,' said Stephen Corry, Director of Survival.
With 85% of the Ethiopian population existing as small-scale farmers, Survival fears that the growth of commercial plantations will turn the region's tribal people from herders and hunters to being unemployed evacuees from their homelands. "The government sees the Omo Valley tribes as 'backward' and wants to 'modernise' them", continued Stephen Corry. 'But the consequences of these developments are likely to be far from beneficial.
Survival believes that if the government dams the lower Omo Valley and continues to sell tribal lands to outsiders, the region's peoples may not even survive. 'There is no singing and dancing along the Omo River now,' said a Mursi man. 'The people are too hungry. The kids are quiet. If the Omo floods are gone, we will die.'