Ethiopia’s Omo Valley | Africa’s Last Frontier, National Geographic Magazine: Gibe III Dam Construction

Boring through a mountain, workers finish a tunnel that will divert the Omo River so a massive hydroelectric dam called Gilgel Gibe III—one of the largest on Earth—can be built. The dam could generate up to 1,870 megawatts of power, which cash-starved Ethiopia plans to sell to its neighbors.

The Gibe III Dam will bring stable electric power to 11 million people in Ethiopia. But the 200,000 tribal people down stream in the Omo Valley who survive by flood recession agriculture will first starve when the water is diverted. Their rich and distinct culture will also disappear. The plan for the dam includes a 10 day release—a fake flood—but the water is released from the middle of the dam and won’t help the agriculture down river.

Jackhammers, drills, heavy machinery. Loud mechanical hunger. High on Ethiopia’s Omo River, in a narrow gorge running through hard, beautiful country, a dam is being built. Tunnels are bored through the mountain. Steel is mated to rock. Men scrape and toil in damp, echoing passages. These are good jobs, difficult to get and far from home. The dam, called Gibe III, will be Africa’s largest, a 243-meter curtain of concrete drawn across the river. It will generate electricity, tame the unruly flow of water. More lightbulbs, fewer floods, that sort of thing. If you live upstream, closer to the capital, the dam is Good News. Power, factories, plantations, progress—a dam offers all this. If you live downstream, however, there is something wrong with this story. Dams change everything below them. You need those floods, after all, to replenish cropland. The jobs and electricity will probably go to foreigners, or at least northerners. And the plantations, laid out for sugar and cotton, things you never needed, will creep along the riverbanks like plaque along an artery

Neal Shea, author of words for NatGeo magazine article. 

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