Ethiopia: Mega irrigation project on disputed river planned

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has announced plans to start an irrigation project on the trans-boundary Omo River. The announcement comes in spite of an unresolved contention raised over the government’s Gibe III Hydropower Project, which is currently underway to generate 1800MW. Analysts argue that Ethiopia should negotiate with countries like Kenya and Egypt before embarking on such projects.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who appeared at a ceremony in Jinka, a town in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, on January 25 to celebrate the 13 Pastoralists Day announced his government’s plan to embark on a mega irrigation plan using the Omo river’s water.

The project will see the cultivation of sugar cane on 150,000 hectares of land, three times larger than the size of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, in the Southern Omo Region on the trans-boundary of the Omo River

According to the Prime Minister, the irrigation project is expected to create 100,000 jobs; A situation that will promote not only a more settled lifestyle for local pastoralists but also harness the area’s water shortage and aid them to undertake more modern systems of animal husbandry.


Gibe III Hydropower, another project on the the Omo River, has in recent years been an object of criticism among international NGO’s and pressure groups who have argued that the project will adversely impact the livelihood of surrounding communities.

Critics insist that the dam will minimize the volume of water that enters Lake Turkana, in Kenya, from the Omo River and negatively impact residents of the area.

Pressure, exerted by the environmental activists, eventually resulted in International financial institutions like the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other donors declining to assist Ethiopia financially vis-à-vis the construction of the mega dam project.

Despite the project’s delay, caused by the withdrawal of international financial institutions, Ethiopia remained on its position and eventually gained financial support of close to 500 million US dollars from the Chinese government, covering 36 per cent of the project’s total cost.


Analysts say that Ethiopia’s current relationship with emerging economies such as China and India has served as a bulwark against both pressure groups and influence from Western countries, thus allowing the Horn of Africa country to undertake projects without fear of reprisal.

Others have expressed fears over Ethiopia’s current position, arguing that it could lead to possible conflicts with neighboring countries, including Kenya and Egypt, unless negotiation is set as a prerequisite regarding mutual economic benefits before commencement of any disputable projects.

Prime Minister Meles who in 2009 asserted that Ethiopia will not slowdown its efforts to industrialise for fear of worsening the state of the environment, stating that Africa’s “contribution to global warming is negligible” in comparison with “‘ndustrialised countries”, said that the irrigation project which is to be carried out in the next five years will make the area a showcase of fast track development.

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