UC Davis anthropology professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and students in her spring 2015 Anthropology 103H class write about the dam's ramifications for local communities. 

Gibe III Dam
Gibe III Dam

The Gibe III dam sits on the Omo River, 300km southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, the Lower Omo Valley is home to five national parks and over 200,000 people. Scholars predict that the dam and its associated plantations will have catastrophic effects for these citizens. It could also impact the region’s fragile ecology and complicate relations between Ethiopia and Kenya.

Construction of the Gibe III dam began in Ethiopia in July 2006. Ten years on, it is near completion. The Ethiopian government says it will provide much needed power to help support vast commercial irrigated plantations and to develop the country’s economy. But the dam will also force local communities from their land in southern Ethiopia and in Kenya’s Lake Turkana basin by disrupting the river’s annual downstream flood.

Costs and benefits

Dams offer many positive economic benefits, such as control of flooding and water supply, potential for irrigation, increased navigability and reliable electrical supply. But these often disproportionately benefit large-scale investors or are distributed across the country as a whole.

Dam construction requires the displacement of peoples from floodplains above the site, leading to the destruction of homes and arable land. Sites of cultural, historical, and religious significance may be leveled to make way for earth-moving. The presence of dams can disrupt and prevent the spawning of migratory fish species, often of economic importance to local communities.

The formation of large, still bodies of water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which raises the prevalence of malaria in nearby communities. (Malaria is a significant health risk in Ethiopia. A study on a nearby dam suggests that it increased malarial infection in local children by 43 percent.)

Half a million people practicing flood-recession agriculture and pastoralism are entirely Photo: Ethiopian familydependent on the Omo River’s natural flood cycle. Cutting off inflow into Lake Turkana will lower the lake’s water level, potentially causing the lake to split into two smaller ones. The reduction in the lake’s water volume will also lead to increased salinity and a subsequent decrease in biodiversity. Some engineers have proposed controlled “ecological” flows and floods, but these are unlikely to mimic natural processes.

A report presented by the State Party of Kenya in February 2015 stated that the Ethiopia-Kenya Joint Ministerial Commission is working on a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The project would assess the dam’s impact, explore potential solutions to mitigate environmental changes and ensure that the dam brings no negative effects to the area.

This assessment was planned to be completed in December 2015. However, in May the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the major organizations working to monitor the Gibe III dam, visited Kenyan authorities and determined that while the dam project was already 90 percent completed, the SEA was still not under way.

Economic gains

The Ethiopian government has defended the Gibe III dam project and the development of the Omo Valley, positing huge economic benefits. These extend to commercial plantations that would be supported by Gibe III, which include sugar plantations run by Ethiopian Sugar Corporation.

In addition to producing oil palm, jatropha, cotton, and maize as cash crops, Ethiopia produces an average of nine to 11 tons of sugar per hectare per month (other sugar-producing countries average six to eight). Accordingly, plots of land are being leased to foreign companies attracted by a favorable climate, tax exemptions and an abundant, inexpensive labor force. To further incentivize investments in sugar, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi promised investors 150,000 hectares and six factories devoted to sugar processing. The sugar plantations will supply sugar for biofuels, primarily in the EU.

The electricity generated by the Gibe III dam will be exported to other countries such as Kenya, adding an estimated $407 million to the dam’s annual revenue. This revenue will help pay off the $572 million government investment in the project, redress Ethiopia's frequent and costly “brown outs”, and bring electricity to Ethiopia’s off-grid rural areas.

However, there has been no agreed-upon environmental and social impact assessment study. A governmental commitment to full assessment prior to construction in 2006 was ignored, and the document finally produced in 2008 has been widely criticized. Further, there is increasing concern that biofuels may, in the long run, increase global carbon emissions, as land converted to biofuel production must be deforested. 

Human rights

The Omo Valley has long been a site for the oppression of indigenous people. In the 1960s and 1970s, national parks were established in the area, with no provision for indigenous management of the parks’ resources. In the 1980s, large sections of indigenous territory were sold to foreign companies and governments for cash crop and biofuel production.

The Gibe III will capitalize on these cash crop opportunities. All 200,000 indigenes, spanning eight ethnic groups (the Mursi, Bodi, Kwegu, Karo, Hamer, Suri, Nyangatom and Daasanach) will be resettled. There will also be drastic repercussions for the several hundred thousand pastoralists in Kenya’s Lake Turkana basin. The Ethiopian government has promised schools, housing, irrigation and food aid for the resettled groups, but there is little evidence of these commitments being honored. Furthermore, the 150,000 full- and part-time jobs promised by the government are likely to consist primarily of underpaid seasonal labor in the sugar plantations

These human rights violations are likely to affect the relationship between Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya’s northern lands are unstable due both to the Somalian refugee crisis and the April 2015 attacks by al-Shabaab in Garissa. Ethiopia, too, is sensitive to political instability, in part as a result of ISIS’s massacre of Ethiopian Christians in the same month. While relations between Kenya and Ethiopia are generally positive, the Gibe III dam is likely to exert social and ecological strain that could galvanize further uncertainty, catalyzing conflicts and increasing membership of extremist organizations.


The Gibe III project has not gone without opposition. But the Ethiopian government has done its best to silence any critics, using oppressive tactics such as beatings, arbitrary detention and arrest, rape, and murder. Anything other than outright support for the project is met with intimidation and violence. Trials are held in which the defense does not speak a common language with the prosecution, giving them little opportunity to understand the accusations made against them, let alone defend themselves. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government prohibits outside organizations from coming to aid Omo communities.

Numerous organizations—including USAID and local aid providers—claim to have assessed the degree of human rights abuse in Ethiopia, but few conclusive reports have been made public. For example, USAID denied any abuses in Ethiopia, but also acknowledged that their investigation was neither in-depth nor representative. These paradoxical claims underscore the lack of transparency in analyzing the future effects of Gibe III, and the reliance of organizations like USAID on scant, inconsistent, or biased information to determine the necessity of aid.

Local groups are also being threatened and prevented from taking action against the construction of Gibe III. For example, the Southern Region Justice Bureau revoked the licenses of 41 local community associations, accusing them of not cooperating with government policy. While the government attempts to prevent local organizations from speaking out against harmful projects, groups like Survival International retaliate by advocating a letter-writing campaign, demanding that the Ethiopian prime minister reconsider the dam’s construction. Even the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination has become involved. In 2011, they requested (without success) the release of information concerning how construction may be negatively affecting the livelihoods of people dependent upon the Lower Omo.

Industrialization and market growth

A major problem for Ethiopia’s economic system is its reliance on loans from the World Bank. Classified as a low income country, Ethiopia can also borrow from the International Development Association (IDA). The IDA offers loans to developing countries at a minimum rate in order to support projects that will help stimulate the economy. However, capitalizing on Ethiopia’s dependence, the IDA can effectively force Ethiopia to degrade its environment and destroy the homes of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Because the IDA primarily funds land development and infrastructure-focused projects, countries like Ethiopia have been compelled to industrialize agriculture without any independent market growth.

This separation of industrialization and market growth can be traced back to the historically poor advice given by the representative banks of the IDA to the Ethiopian government, which encouraged the funding of unnecessary infrastructure projects instead of supporting stimulation of the private sector. We contend that it is Ethiopia’s growing reliance on loans from the IDA that is ultimately behind the flooding of the Lower Omo basin.

Open dialogue

While the Omo Gibe III dam may provide Ethiopia and neighboring countries with a reliable source of electricity, steps must be taken now to prevent further marginalization of the people affected by its construction. The Oakland Institute alerts the world to the ongoing human rights abuses. International Rivers strongly advises that Ethiopia halt the project, and heed the advice of international experts to create an integrated water-resources management plan for the Lower Omo.

This plan should consider the environmental and socio-economic impacts of all developments in the region. The government must engage in an honest and open dialogue with all the people affected by this project, from the Lower Omo River Basin to those who live around Lake Turkana, as well as with the Kenyan government.

On May 29, 2015 the World Heritage Committee (WHC), heading the monitoring of the dam, drafted a decision reaffirming its significant negative environmental impacts. The decision advocates for further discussion between the State Parties of Ethiopia and Kenya, requesting that these governments submit a Strategic Environmental Assessment by 2016 before further expansion of the dam and the Kuraz Sugar Scheme project. The IUCN and WHC advocated for preventing further development of the proposed Gibe IV and V dam projects as well as other projects such as oil exploration, until an SEA has been produced by the state authorities. Following the meeting between IUCN and the Kenyan authorities in May, Kenya and Ethiopia joined the United National Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Sustainable Development of Lake Turkana and its River Basins project.

Postscript: The World Heritage Committee held their 39th session from 28 June to 8 July 2015 in Bonn, Germany. Despite strong lobbying to declare Lake Turkana a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” the WHC failed to halt dam construction, and directed the two affected nations to raise a paltry $200,000 to mitigate negative effects. In short, the Gibe III project will proceed as scheduled. International institutions appear to have served local interests poorly.

This is an edited version of a paper co-authored by Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and the students of Anthropology 103H (Spring 2015). The contributing students were: Colette Barton, TJ Blackburn, Kira Burnett, Rebecca Chan, Lizhi Cheng, Hannah Craig, Emily Dorrance, William Ebeler, Noah Ekstrom, Violet Elder, Juei Yun Fu, Andrew Lowery, Heather Nguyen, Sharon Pneh, Hannah Probets, Troy Shea, Kevin Tahara, Bryanna Thigpen, Kevin Tom, Benjamin Wigman and Erin Woolley.