Ethiopia’s Omo Valley encompasses over 23,500 km in the extreme southwest of the country bordering Kenya and South Sudan. Within Ethiopia, the Omo Valley is located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Republic (SNNPR) regional state. This diverse geographic area includes the Omo River and its delta, the Turkana Basin of Lake Turkana, the wider river valley including arid desert and plateaus, and the lush highland mountain ranges along the northern and eastern borders. The Omo Valley is situated in the heart of the East African Great Rift Valley and 165 km of the “Lower Valley of the Omo” was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 due to the numerous renowned fossil hominid discoveries.
This area has long been suggested by anthropologists to have been a major “crossroads” and “super highway” over the course of human evolutionary history.
In contemporary and historical times the Omo Valley has been among the most culturally diverse areas in the world, home to over a dozen ethnic groups, each with their own language including many from the Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic families.
The Omo Valley was not well integrated into Ethiopia’s Imperial government. With the fall of the Ethiopian empire and the rise of Ethiopia’s communist regime, the Derg, the Omo Valley, like much of the rural countryside, was neglected and remained disconnected from wider national infrastructure.
For the people of the Omo Valley, much of their cultural and economic livelihoods, including geographic ranges and between-group relations, have not been substantially impacted by the state in recent history.
Today, the Omo Valley is the focus of new and increasing economic development including agricultural production and government projects. Former market outposts are becoming booming frontier towns. Several large-scale sugar factories along the Omo River are now operational.
The timeline and severity of potential impacts on remote populations are unclear, but significant changes, such as increases in wage labor and shifts in traditional gender roles, are likely. Nonetheless, many subsistence-based populations remain dispersed and relatively isolated.