Water Wars in Ethiopia

by |March 30, 2009

For centuries tribal people in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia have been content to live according the flood cycle of the river.  In recent years, a certain development has caused much blood to be spilled over territorial claims on the river.  Automatic weapons are now in the hands of almost every male in the tribes, leading to violence over water rights.

Recently the enemy has grown much larger than your next door tribe – the government has mobilized the building of Gilgel Gibe III, the second largest sub-Saharan dam.  The Omo tribes are outraged with the introduction of the Dam because they believe it will disrupt the river flood cycle that has been the basis of their sustenance for so many centuries.  On the other hand, the government insists that the Omo tribes will continue life as they always have for the dam will only allow officials to manage the height and timing of the flood – in a sense the flood cycle will simply be enhanced and controlled by the government.

This argument is not accepted by the tribes.  The Mursi people, who are famous for enormous disks in their earlobes and lower lips, believe that regulation of the floods will be detrimental to their agricultural tendencies.  In fact, renowned ecologists and international organizations agree that Gilgel Gibe III will hurt the Omo tibes.  The lingering question remains: what is more important, the river community or river control?

As the Nyangatom elder said, “if the river goes down, there will be war”

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Meaghan Daly
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Meaghan Daly

In addition to the internal strife that is likely to come about due to the construction of damns in Ethiopia, there will also be international allocation issues to contend with.

Because a large majority of the water that makes its way into Egypt and Sudan originates in Ethiopia, the damns will have a widespread impact. To complicate matters, the water rights in the region are already messy. The existing framework, drawn up during the colonial era, technically allocate Ethiopia no water – clearly not a reasonable structure.

This will become an increasingly important issue as more infrastructure is put into place.