The state-run project launched this year – combined with other large-scale farming investments irrigated by the outflow from an under-construction hydropower dam – look likely to alter the area forever, initially for some Bodi and Mursi communities who will be resettled to make way for the sugar fields.
"They will still be pastoralists, but agro-pastoralists. They will not roam around in search of water and grazing land," Abay Tsehaye, head of the state-owned Sugar Corporation, says. "They will have enough grazing land because we will supply them with irrigation."
The farms will be made possible by the regulated outflow from the upstream Gibe III hydropower plant. The plant, which will almost double Ethiopia's power generating capacity, is scheduled to be finished in 2013.
It will provide electricity to Ethiopia and also generate scarce foreign exchange by supplying the region. Ethiopia's large hydropower potential – due to plentiful rainfall in its highlands and mountainous terrain – is a vital asset that must be utilized to bring the country out of poverty, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's leader of two decades, says.
Roads have been improved, scrub land demarcated, and construction of a diversion weir begun for the six plantations fed by the Omo that will occupy at least one-eighth of the Lower Omo area and use 3 billion cubic meters of water per year. Despite the progress, resettlement plans and technical studies on the plantations have not yet been completed, the Sugar Corporation says.
Mr. Abay says agricultural experts, irrigation schemes, and social services will bring much-needed development to a neglected backwater. Critics like Survival International, a British charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, argue communities' rights are being trampled and that the water use will parch Lake Turkana, another World Heritage Site that straddles the Ethiopia-Kenya border.