Will Ethiopia’s controversial new dam repeat the “world’s worst environmental disaster”?

The offending dam. Image: Mimi Abebayehu/Wikimedia Commons.

Encompassing swathes of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, the Omo-Turkana Basin is one of the oldest landscapes in the world that is known to have been inhabited by Homo sapiens and is now one of the world’s most extraordinary examples of ethnic diversity. In the lower Omo Valley alone, a varied history of cross-cultural encounters has played out to produce eight distinct ethnic groups, speaking many languages from Afro-Asiatic to Nilo-Saharan.

In a cattle camp on the bank of the ancient Omo River a Mursi elder implored me to, “Tell our story so that others might know us before we are all dead in the desert”. Where the river ends in Lake Turkana, this sentiment was echoed by local fishermen: “You will find our bones in the desert.” The story of the Omo-Turkana Basin is now that of the Ethiopian state exploiting its periphery in the name of “development”, trampling on the human rights of its citizens in the process.

The dam and the damned

Over the past decade, the Ethiopian government has pushed ahead with a huge hydro-electric dam on the Omo, known as Gibe III. Without any meaningful consultation with the communities affected, the state has also appropriated grazing lands and freshwater, threatening their vital resources and local heritage.

All of this has happened despite the area gaining the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. As Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician put it, “these happenings are profoundly disturbing”.

The completion of Gibe III, Africa’s tallest dam to date, has eliminated the annual flood and radically reduced the Omo’s flow, which produces 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s freshwater input. In doing so, it has reduced sediments and nutrients critical for traditional agriculture, riverside pastures and fish habitat.

The former lake bed. What remains of the Aral Sea is heavily polluted. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Over 30 per cent of the lake inflow will be diverted for commercial irrigation projects. The result could be a fall in lake level comparable to that of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, which has shrunk by over two thirds since the 1960s because of irrigation abstractions, and which has been called “the world’s worst environmental disaster”. To make way for the commercial plantations planned for the Omo Valley, tens of thousands of hectares of land will be expropriated and thousands of local people displaced.

Development at any cost

The need to see “development” as more than a simple matter of an increase in GDP is well established. In his seminal work, Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, demonstrated that sustainable development must be based on universal access to social and economic necessities as well as political and civil rights. The many communities in the Omo-Turkana Basin have suffered a systematic curtailment of their most basic and essential rights.

International agreements which the Ethiopian government signed up to, such as the 1993 International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require it to protect and promote the rights of minority cultures and ensure the “right of everyone to take part in cultural life”.

Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has reduced to around 10 per cent of its size in the 1960s. Image: T. Clack/author provided.

Since 1948, Ethiopia has also been signed up to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II provides against the destruction of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide”, famously defined the specific need to protect against the “disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups”.

It is difficult not to conclude that what we are seeing in the Omo is the wholesale disregard of these commitments by the Ethiopian government. Its development policies are not only transforming landscape and heritage but destroying complex systems of sustainable living that have endured for millennia. The huge injustice of all this is that the ecological costs will be borne by local communities while the profits will be enjoyed by central and international corporations.

Meanwhile, centuries of collective wisdom relating to livestock diversification, flood dependant cultivation and customary obligations and mechanisms of livestock exchange, will be made redundant.

This is not to deny, of course, that development, in the sense defined by Sen, is a laudable and necessary enterprise. But we must also recognise that large-scale infrastructure projects are likely to have far reaching consequences for the lifestyles and cultural identities of those they displace.


Projects which set out to increase economic growth without regard for social justice and individual rights are not worthy of the name “development”. Development must benefit locals, and for this to happen their voices must not only be heard but also given a central and determining role in any discussions about the future of their lands and livelihoods.

Both cradle and crucible of our species, the Omo-Turkana Basin is unique and precious. Its heritage and history, as well as responsibility for its future, are shared by us all.The Conversation

Timothy Clack, Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.