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Electricity is flowing from Ethiopia’s massive new dam on the Blue Nile near Sudan, a milestone in the country’s strategy to harness its rivers for economic growth. Yet while the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has drawn a cascade of attention because of Egypt’s opposition to plugging the river that has shaped its remarkable history, few people are aware of what is happening along Ethiopia’s other major river. 

Like a nomad wandering far from sight, the Omo River tumbles from Ethiopia’s highlands south of the capital Addis Ababa, through dramatic canyons and into a timeless valley that has shaped the story of humanity.

Like a nomad wandering far from sight, the #OmoRiver tumbles from #Ethiopia’s highlands south of the capital #AddisAbaba, through dramatic canyons and into a timeless valley that has shaped the story of humanity.

Unlike the Nile, which begins at Lake Tana and eventually exits Ethiopia for a long journey to the Mediterranean Sea, the Omo rises and ends entirely within Ethiopia. It runs about 400 miles and empties into Lake Turkana, the world’s biggest desert lake. In its last 100 miles or so, the Omo travels through remote Africa, peopled by pastoralists and home to cultures that speak to us across millennia.

Ethiopia has built dams along the Omo, too, the largest of which is Gilgel Gibe III, jammed into a canyon and, at 807 feet high, Africa’s tallest. The dam is upstream from a classic basin framed by a wall of mountains to the west in Omo National Park. These lowlands are the last terrain through which the Omo passes, winding this way and that, before reaching Lake Turkana. Ethiopia’s planners recognized that this land, watered by the Omo, could yield agricultural riches for the country, aiding the country’s rise from poverty.

Just before arriving at the lake, the Omo passes a series of geologic formations from which fossils and stone tools from deep time have emerged during field work by scientists over six decades. In 1980, the United Nations designated the Lower Omo Valley as World Heritage terrain, recognizing the global importance of the area to understanding human origins. 

“The deposits of human vertebrae fauna, and paleo-environmental evolution, shed light on the earliest stages of the origins and development of homo sapiens of Africa,” says the World Heritage designation. “The discoveries of ancient stone tools in an encampment also offers evidence of the oldest known technical activities of prehistoric beings” and make these lands “one of the most significant for mankind.”

What sets the Lower Omo Valley apart in our time are the Indigenous peoples spread across the valley, with strange customs, mesmerizing dress and body art, and fascinating social and cosmological concepts that have made them famous across Africa and around the world. In the drama of mega-scale agriculture, the Mursi, Bodi and Nyangatom take center stage, with the Hamar peoples in the southeastern part of the Lower Omo Valley also caught up in the transformation of these ancient lands.

What sets the Lower #OmoValley apart in our time are the #Indigenous peoples spread across the valley, with strange customs, mesmerizing dress and body art, and fascinating social and cosmological concepts that have made them famous across #Africa and around the world. #Ethiopia

International activists have directed withering criticism at the Ethiopian government for building dams, especially Gibe III, and pursuing plantation agricultural projects that they say will invade customary lands and devastate these cultures. The Ethiopian government says it’s time for all its people, including those living in the Omo Valley, to be educated and turn to reliable irrigation farming that can break cycles of hunger and improve living conditions.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Omo River has blessed the peoples of the valley with rich soil for planting after the river’s seasonal flood recedes. Before the construction of Gibe III, about 100,000 people depended on this method to grow sorghum, maize and beans, according to the Omo-Turkana Research Network. Once the dam was built, that flood diminished, affecting the cultivation of crops.

The average monthly flow of the Omo at the Gibe III site prior to the dam’s arrival could be 25 times higher in August than in dry-season March, according to an African Development Bank study. About once every decade, however, the river flood can surge much higher. In 2006, hundreds of people died, and thousands of animals perished, when the Omo unleashed a powerful flood in the valley. In 2020, flooding displaced more than 10,000 people in South Omo Zone, the political jurisdiction that includes the Lower Omo Valley.

The Omo River, once hidden away in the far south of Ethiopia, has now become a focus of international scrutiny, for the impact on Indigenous communities, the future of downstream Lake Turkana, and the tension between ecology and economic change. This is a river fully caught up in the human and environmental dramas of our times. 


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