Charting Troubled Waters: Documenting Ecological and Social Change in the Lower Omo Valley

By David-Paul Pertaub

SIDERA – Shifting Inequality Research Dynamics in Ethiopia: Research to Application – is an 18 month ESRC funded inter-disciplinary research project exploring the relationship between conflict, poverty and environmental degradation in the lower Omo region of Ethiopia.  Kicking off this month, the project comprises three working groups based in three different countries (USA, UK, and critically, Ethiopia) and across multiple academic institutions (the University of Michigan, Kings College London, University of Addis Ababa and UCL).  Jed Stevenson will be leading the research team here at UCL.

Ethiopia’s lower Omo valley is changing rapidly.  Once a remote and peripheral borderland on the fringe of the southern lowlands, the national government has a grand ‘high modernist’ vision of transforming the region through state-led industrial agriculture, in particular extensive investment in sugar plantations and supporting infrastructure.  The area, however, is no terra nullius.  It is already home to a large number of indigenous and traditional ethnic groups and is recognized by UNESCO as a unique and important center of ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity.  Pastoralist by ideology, the subsistence livelihoods of groups in the region have always been extremely diversified, supplementing livestock rearing with traditional methods of flood retreat agriculture, fishing and hunting and gathering.  But the agricultural transformation of the region means that the resource base is now changing in ways that are unprecedented, posing a significant challenge to local communities struggling to maintain or adapt traditional livelihoods in the face of changing ecological circumstances.

The principal changes that are underway in the region are due to a hydroelectric dam, the Gibe III, which has altered the flow of the River Omo, the lifeline of the region for farmers, herders, and fishers. As well as generating electricity, the dam has facilitated the irrigation of large areas of land in the lower Omo that was formerly used for grazing and small-scale farming. The implications for local populations are far-reaching, including displacement, increased food insecurity, and competition with outsiders for access to resources.

After a long day working in the fields, a woman and her children return home carrying firewood and cooking utensils. Kakuta, Nyangatom, lower Omo, May 2016.

After a long day working in the fields, a woman and her children return home carrying firewood and cooking utensils. Kakuta, Nyangatom, lower Omo, May 2016

In this situation it is critical to have accurate information about the impact of such large scale development on local communities, but this kind of data has simply not been available.  One of the key aims of SIDERA is to address precisely this lack by documenting the impact of change in the region across multiple scales, and to fit them into the local historical context.  Three working groups will explore aspects of change from different disciplinary perspectives.

The Environmental Sustainability group, a collaboration between Kings College London and Michigan State University, will study the evolving pattern of agricultural and environment resources in the lower Omo, focusing on the availability and distribution of natural resources critical for local indigenous livelihoods and investigating how access to these livelihoods for local communities has changed over time.  Remote sensing methods will be combined with targeted fieldwork on the ground to give a detailed and accurate picture of the changes over time.

The Conflict and Resilience group, based in Ethiopia and working out of Institute of Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, will investigate changing patterns of violence and armed hostility between ethnic groups in the region.  Cattle raiding, long standing rivalries between groups and competition over key natural resources, primarily pasture and water, have historically contributed to the outbreak of intermittent localized warfare in the region, especially in times of prolonged drought. These numerous and deep social fault lines can easily be disturbed by environmental and ecological change, in the process aggravating existing conflicts, awakening dormant ones or creating new entirely flash points.

Meanwhile here at UCL, Jed Stevenson and I will be investigating socio-economic change in the lower Omo, focusing on selected communities within the impact zone.  We will be conducting detailed fieldwork among the Nyangatom, an agro-pastoralist group numbering roughly 25,000 people in the middle reaches of lower Omo valley.  Until very recently their home area was practically inaccessible by road.  Today new roads, bridges and communications infrastructure are rapidly transforming the area as the government prepares to integrate the new sugar plantations into the national economy.

Many different ethnic groups are affected by the agricultural schemes, but the Nyangatom are particularly exposed.  Large tracts of their rangeland have been set aside for the sugar industry, potentially fragmenting their resource base and restricting access to key grazing areas for their livestock.  As a result of the Gibe III dam upstream, they are no long able to grow sorghum and maize on the nutrient rich soils left behind after the flood.  While the government has been providing food aid through its Safety Net programme, the impact on of this growing dependency on state support is unclear and as yet undocumented.

We aim to go beyond the usual indicators of development used in official government, UN and NGO narratives, which can sometimes obscure the complex multidimensional nature of wellbeing and the nuanced dynamics of real, lived local experiences of change.  Instead the research team at UCL will be exploring local, emic perceptions of prosperity and wellbeing, and looking retrospectively at historical experiences, both individual and collective, of relative wealth and poverty.  By comparing the impact of key past events (such as drought, war, famine, disease and previous evictions/displacements) with the evolving situation on the ground today, we will aim to trace out how recent changes in the wider region have been shifting the major axes of inequality – gender, age, ethnicity, education – among communities of one particular ethnic group.  The interdisciplinary nature of the SIDERA project puts us in the enviable position of being able to contextualize these findings to an unprecedented degree.

Generating knowledge about the situation in the lower Omo is only one part of SIDERA.  The second major aim of the project is to disseminate our findings widely, particularly within Ethiopia, enabling and encouraging informed discussions among key stakeholders about the trajectory of existing development plans.  The national government has been particularly sensitive to criticism of its development plans, particularly by international Human Rights organizations.  The hope is that SIDERA will be able to move beyond this impasse, engaging constructively with policy makers at all levels and in the process overcoming structural barriers to knowledge sharing.  By opening up new channels of communication and making local perspectives and community experiences more visible to policy makers, it may be possible to foster a more inclusive approach to development, informed by direct evidence from the field.

David-Paul Pertaub graduated from UCL’s MSc programme in Anthropology, Environment and Development in 2016. He is currently studying for a PhD in Geography at the University of Sheffield. All images here were taken by the author. 


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