An Open Letter to President Obama

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President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear Mr. President,

As you prepare to visit Ethiopia, a highly concerning situation in the country’s Lower Omo Valley deserves your urgent attention. The Lower Omo Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to unique agro-pastoral communities whose way of life and identities are closely linked to the land and attuned to the natural variations in the Omo River. Yet these indigenous peoples and their unique cultures are under threat from developments on the Omo, in particular the Gibe 3 Dam. 

Currently in its final stages of construction, the Gibe 3 Dam is one of the most environmentally and socially destructive projects in Africa. The dam will drastically reduce the flow of the Omo River, which will be compounded by large-scale irrigation schemes that siphon the river’s flow for vast sugar cane plantations. Already 1700mi2 of land has been allocated for water-intensive commercial agricultural development in the Omo Valley, in areas where pastoralists have been forcibly removed.

The enormous disruption and displacement of people resulting from land and water insecurity threatens to further destabilize a region already vulnerable to ethnic tensions and land disputes. As people lose access to water, their lands and livelihoods, the potential for local conflicts to turn into regional ones escalates enormously.  

We understand that the United States considers Ethiopia an important ally in an unstable region. We also recognize the moral arguments that compel donors to support the development goals of impoverished nations such as Ethiopia. Yet, when such developments come at the expense of the poorest of the poor, and with significant violations of human rights, we believe the U.S. Government should speak up. 

We ask you to use your good offices to raise these issues with the Ethiopian government and urge them to operate the Gibe III Dam in such a way that sufficient flows of the Omo are released to mitigate against the impacts to the downstream communities and ecosystems.

The Ethiopian government should recognize the rights of the Omo Valley’s indigenous communities over their historic homelands and engage in meaningful discussion with them over the future use of their land prior to further industrial development in South Omo. Without such steps, we fear the Lower Omo could see a hydrological, ecological and social collapse in our time, with a subsequent escalation of conflict, hunger and misery for people in the region.

Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response. 

Peter Bosshard                                     Ikal Ang’elei
Interim Executive Director                      Executive Director
International Rivers                                Friends of Lake Turkana