South Omo Zone Holds Nation’s Sweet Promise

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By Mikias Sebsibe

Ethiopia’s South Omo Zone, located some 700km south of the capital, is one of the tourist attraction areas of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). The zone is home to diverse ethnic groups where 16 ethnic compositions coexist in the zone.

And recently, the name South Omo is being associated with massive development project that includes the construction of six sugar factories with the capacity to crush 60,000 tons of sugarcane per day.

The Omo-Kuraz Sugar Development Project will develop sugar cane plantation on 150,000 hectares of land around the Omo River which is expected to be one of the largest sugar cane farms in the country. Headwork on harnessing the Omo River and construction of a 160-Km irrigation canal is already underway.

It has not been a year since the bustling heavy machineries trekked south of the country for the massive sugar development projects, which are expected to elevate the country to the status of a sugar exporter nation. The previously uninhabited area is fast becoming a site for major construction activities.

Indeed, the Omo River, one of the five major river basins in the zone, is now dammed with an 840 meter long and 26 meters high coffer-dam. This temporary structure has two spillways allowing the water to continue its journey to its eventual destination into Lake Turkana, Kenya.

Contracted by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC), the irrigation dam construction is underway by the Ethiopian Water Works Construction Enterprise (EWWCE). Preparations are finalized to commence construction on the permanent structure. EWWCE will also carryout this construction, which was suspended due to the rainy season, jointly with a Chinese company.

“The agreement with the sugar corporation is to complete the permanent structure within two years but we expect to finalize 90 percent of it in the first year alone,” Moges Kifle, Omo river diversion project manager, told WIC in August 2012. This is testament to the government’s commitment to finalize the project before 2014/15 - the end of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) period.

The federal enterprise is also contracted to undertake the construction of a 5.5 km main irrigation canal and cross structures. According to Moges, 80 percent of the irrigation project was finalized last budget year. The irrigation project will develop 6,000 hectares of land in the first phase. This is planned to be expanded to 15,000 hectares during the current budget year.

In a bid to build local capacity, the government deliberately engages several federal and state enterprises as well as small and micro enterprises. ESC has contracted South Water Works Construction Enterprise (SWWCE) for the construction of 18.5 km main, secondary and tertiary canals.   

“We are delighted to be part of this massive project,” Wubayehu Tizazu, head of Omo Kuraz irrigation development project at SWWCE, told WIC in August 2012. “It will help us build our capacity and be capable to take up big projects in the future.” At the time, the SWWCE was on the final stages of completing the main canal.

Amid such huge development endeavors, the government is facing repeated allegations, mainly from western rights activists and environmentalists, of forceful eviction of indigenous people and damage to biodiversity. However, such criticisms seem to be having no effect to activities on the ground. This is mainly because the government is adamant about the benefits of the developmental projects. It has repeatedly labeled the allegations as baseless and politically motivated.

The indigenous communities are mainly pastoralists who move from place to place in search of water and grazing land. An estimated 120,000 people live in the 175,000 ht project area of the Omo-Kuraz Sugar Development. Currently, the project encompasses areas where the Bodi, Mursi and Bacha pastoralist communities visit.

Molloka Wubneh is from Male tribe, one of the 16 ethnic groups in the zone. He is the Chief Administrator of South Omo Zone. The South Omo Zonal Administration participates in the project mainly by resettling the pastoralist community through the “villagization” program. Molloka categorically denies forceful eviction of indigenous people.

“The government’s principle is persuasion not forceful eviction. That is why two years were spent to persuade the community about the benefits of the villagization programme,” Molloka said. “Not a single person was forcefully evicted.”

Last budget year, the zone administration included 1,430 households to its “villagization” program. The plan was to include 1,742 households in Sala Mago wereda, where three villages are set up.

“Out of this [1,430 households], 606 have received their plot, around 300 are building their homes, and around 50 have already settled in the designated villages,” Molloka told WIC in August.

The government has prepared 1,746 ht agricultural land. Each household will receive one hectare and the administration will assign experts to provide trainings in agricultural practices to the largely pastoralist community.

Darige, father of two, is one of the pastoralists who were included in the “villagization” programme. Four months after settling to his new home, Darige told WIC how he decided to be included in the project.

“Government officials consulted with us about the villagization. I welcomed the programme and decided to settle here on my own free will,” Darige said.

His family relied on Omo River for drinking water and the women had to travel for two to three days to get a grinding mill before coming to their new village at Sala Mago wereda.

Darige’s new home has a grinding mill, access to clean water and a high school nearby. Darige says his wife is now working on their farmland while he caters for his cattle.

Like Darige many of the pastoralist community will be encouraged to adopt a sedentary way of life. It is worth noting the economic opportunities the project provides to the community upon completion. All year round fishing from the artificial lake, cattle breeding using factory by-products and agriculture using irrigation schemes are to name few.

South Omo zone encompasses two wildlife reserves (Chelbi and Tama), two controlled hunting areas (Murule and Wollishet) and the Mago national park (2,235 sq. km area). It is believed that, the Mago Park has the largest herds of eland (cow sized antelopes) in Africa. Large varieties of big games (both herbivores and carnivores), arboreal, reptile, and variety of birds are found in the park and conservation areas of the zone.

The other criticism directed at the Omo-Kuraz Sugar Development project is the danger it poses to such wildlife.

“These are our treasures. They are protected and it will remain so. The development project is nowhere near the protected areas and so will have no effect on the wildlife as well as the environment,” Molloka insists.

Historically the area had been deprived of basic social and economic provisions. The development project will be instrumental in transforming the area. Five new villages and a main town will be set up adjacent to each of the sugar factories. In addition around 52,000 residential houses will be built for employees of the factories and plantations.

Molloka believes the indigenous community will be the direct and full beneficiaries of this transformation.

“With such exposure to socio-economic services, the living condition of the indigenous community will be transformed for the better,” he told WIC.     

Ethiopia’s estimated annual sugar production is a little over 300,000 tons. The government plans to raise the annual production to 2.25 million tons by the end of the GTP period. It is also planned to generate 661.7 million dollars from export of 1.24 million tons of sugar.

To achieve these targets, the government has launched the construction of ten new sugar factories and expansion projects to existing sugar factories. At least six of the new sugar factories will be built in South Omo Zone. Hence, the success of the national target largely depends on the success of the Omo Kuraz Sugar Development project.