Starving a Fragile Land in Southern Ethiopia

Over the course of six years, Fausto Podavini documented the consequences of a newly constructed dam within a precarious ecosystem in the Omo River region of southern Ethiopia.

© Fausto Podavini, from the series Omo Change.A Borana woman inside a well is getting water to take to ground level in order to water her animals. In this extremely dry area, in the dry season, water is taken from 20 metre deep wells, where the aquifer is located.

For the past six years, Italian photographer Fausto Podavini has documented the consequences of the building of a dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia - a region that is home to some 200,000 agro-pastoralists belonging to traditional African ethnic groups. For centuries they survived on subsistence farming. “Being an extremely fragile area, the Omo Valley is inhabited by different ethnicities that were able to develop an agricultural system that works on a delicate balance between survival of humankind and the usage of the natural resources, like the floods of the Omo River”, Podavini explains.

The precarious harmony was dramatically undermined by the introduction of the dam - rainforests have started to disappear, while seasonal floods have stopped, and local communities have lost most of their animals and lands, all within the last few years.

© Fausto Podavini, from the series Omo Change. A man from the Mursi ethnic group prepares for the Dunga; a typical tribal rite among the Mursi. The Dunga is a stick fighting contest between people of different villages, and is practiced in order to assert the supremacy of a village over the other.

In other words, the government has orchestrated the starving of a people to worsen the world's hunger problems for cheap energy. The dam is indeed meant to provide hydro-electricity as well as to control water to irrigate large sugar plantations later transformed into ethanol. While such projects inject a lot of money into the national economy, they are pursued without consideration or compensation for their human consequences on the region’s ancestral inhabitants.

And this, despite clauses from the International Commission for the Construction of Dams, funded by the World Bank, warning against corrupting the condition of life of the population living along the affected river. A 2009 document, written by MID International Consulting Engineers nonetheless states, “ [...] There are no ethnic minorities or tribal people whose traditional lifestyles could become compromised through the development of the proposed Gibe III dam and the creation of the reservoir. Therefore, no indigenous development plan will be required. ...]

© Fausto Podavini, from the series Omo Change. A guy with a prostitute inside a bar in Hana Mursi. In Hana Mursi there are many bars opened by Ethiopians from Arba Minch or Jinka. In the bars, people drink alcohol, chew khat and there are many girls available for sexual encounters.

Podavini includes quotes from this document in many of his captions, emphasising the visual evidence he has collected highlighting the vast hypocrisy surrounding the dam. Going through Podavini’s images feels like seeing the last bit of a soon to be vanished reality, as tribes must give up their traditional customs and lifestyles. The dam has attracted large foreign investments as well as tourism, and with it, money, alcohol and prostitution. Some of his images strikingly feature in the same frame signs of the past and the future, tradition and modernity, leaving no doubt on what will remain. Such a subtle approach has earned him several prizes, most notably from Pictures of the Year International and World Press Photo, and a grant from the Yves Rocher Fondation.

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Fausto Podavini is an award-winning Italian photojournalist working with various non-profit organisations for the realisation of reportage projects in Italy, Peru, Kenya and Ethiopia. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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