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Interview of President Isaias with local media(Part V)

His excellency President Isaias Afwerki conducted an extensive interview with the local media from 27 to 30 of December, 2011, regarding global, regional as well as local issues. Excerpts of the fifth part of the interview follows:

Mr. President, in the extensive study paper you presented in the last Cabinet meeting, you indicated that substantial amount of the budget will be allocated to the infrastructure sector. Can you please shed some light on the infrastructure programs including communication and transport and why they are given priority? Considering the expected huge investment for their implementation, don’t you think it will stretch and exceed government expenditure?

Sometimes government could be engaged in huge programs beyond its capacity emanated from good desire and aspiration. But it has its own set of consequences. So it requires careful scrutiny. Referring to the infrastructure programs that have been undertaken so far, some people opt to believe contrary to what I said when I said that  small portion have been done. There are some who think a lot have been done. But if you try to explain it numerically it is relatively small. For example if talk about electricity power supply, there is a power plant in Hirgigo. There might be another small plant around Asmara that supports it. It is impossible to think that you can run the whole nation with 120 megawatt. You have to think of thousand, two thousand or three thousand megawatts. That tells how small it is. Even with its small capacity it has some problems and doesn’t cover all over the nation. So, one of our main priorities is to conduct electrification program that covers the whole country. And this is not a newly emerging topic; it has been always our priority. We must have distribution networks and power plants that do not only serve domestic purpose but also industrial and agricultural purposes with proper capacity. The power plant we have now is giving service to Asmara and some big cities. It has not yet reached all over the country. So if we see it in this angle we will do it stage by stage with slow pace considering our capacity. The objective is to provide electricity power supply to all the regions of the country. The question that could arise here is that how much sponsorship or capital does it require? In what condition is the domestic capacity that needs the service? Beyond the capacity to build it, you also need resources to maintain it. There are many variables that should be taken into consideration, but we are working on it as a priority.

Looking at the road infrastructure, I don’t believe there are enough roads in this country. Of course there were some existing roads that have been improved, and some roads that we have constructed. But all these roads are small in size, very narrow and only cover limited areas of the country. There has to exist asphalted roads linking Massawa with Assab, Massawa–Qarura,  Massawa –Afabet, Qarura- Gulbub reaching the extreme west of the country.  The quality of the roads doesn’t matter. They could be asphalt or dirty roads; you can have various forms. But they must be upgraded gradually. Especially the Asmara–Massawa road with all its natural problems is very narrow and old. It cannot serve the economy that is growing. It requires work that needs time. Also other options should be taken into consideration. The biggest strategic road that we could not build until now is the one that stretches to the West of the country; from Himbrti, through Liban-Habela, Mensura to Akordet. Asphalting the road from Akordet to the border with Sudan has already begun; perhaps it could take some time. Other than this, there is the line that enters Tessenei from Akordet, through Adi Bara, Tamarat – a series of roads that go to the North, because it is an area of high importance. The road from Tessenei to Omhajer was difficult during the rainy seasons. It should be upgraded to asphalt road. The road from Adi-Keih to Foro which is also on its final stage of construction also needs improvement in order to give adequate service. The construction of the road from Mendefera through Areza that goes to Barentu is also in the program. Parallel with these roads there is construction of bridges, water passages and other related infrastructural works. Infrastructure is not only about paving a road and asphalting, it involves much more research and planning. For instance, it has been quite some time since it was planned to develop a ring road in Asmara but hasn’t yet been materialized, maybe the construction will start in the near future. Ring road in Asmara has to take other roads into considerations before its development; it has to consider all the highways from Asmara to all the directions of the country. The existing highway roads of Asmara–Senafe and beyond and Asmara–Adi-Quala and beyond are in bad condition. People are using these roads because they have no other choice. The same goes with the road from Asmara to Keren, there are no roads that we could talk about from Keren to the northern parts of the country.

There is a plan to construct the Asmara-Nefasit- Dekemhare road and that from Dekemhare-Teraemini- Mendefera. This is all included in the infrastructure program. What we must take note is that all these might not be executed by us only. They could be done in partnership with foreign companies, but in the long run if we can’t develop and upgrade our capabilities to take on such projects on our own with our own local manpower and resources, it all sums up to the point that we can’t finish such projects solely depending on foreign companies. We have been working on our capacity building for the past 20 years, in terms of technology, manpower and material resources. We have been upgrading our local resources and we will still keep on.  Although we can’t say that we have already reached the ultimate stage, we, however, can confidently take on the aforementioned projects on our own, without any foreign collaboration. We must then ask how many projects we are planning to undertake. How big are these projects? What is the quality of the roads that so far have been constructed and the service they are providing?  A superb infrastructure system means a good economic standing.  One should commute smoothly from A to B without wasting time, labour and with affordable transportation expenses, transporting cargos and loads efficiently, including the public transportation.

Roads are like blood nerves of an organ, while the significance of electricity and power supplies are still in place, for the speed of the development of this sector prominently depends on them. What is the role of the government in this? If the government can’t provide these things, then it has slacked from its duties and roles. I am not saying that there aren’t other important infrastructures programs but road building is the life behind development, so as the provision of power supply.  The provision of potable water isn’t of minor importance. A shoe must fit the foot, and this has been deeply rooted in our psychology. We shouldn’t take on large-scale projects that are beyond our capacity and capability. Even if we seek big projects and accomplishments, we need to consider our capacity. Timing is necessary.  This is one of the reasons we resist foreign interventions for it will permanently paralyse us and prevent any sustainable economic growth.  We must take on programs that match our potential and current capability for it has its own advantages. But how can we speed up the construction process in view of the blooming economy? What can we accomplish in the year 2012 and 2013? What programs could really be worked out? These are some of the programs outlined.

The progress of the Eritrean economy is expected to be faster in the coming few years. Correspondingly, the demand for energy in all sectors of the economy will increase. What has been proactively planned to address these concerns?

As promoting the quantity and quality of electric services is one of the major national priorities, the Ministry of Energy and Mines has clear programs designed to address the stated concerns. Accordingly, the need for taking specifically relevant measures in different parts of the country has been studied. It can’t be confidently claimed that much has been done to address the electric needs in the western parts of the country. The sources of energy that have been established in the area are limited in capacity and meet only specific needs and serve limited areas. Initially, these were designed to meet the immediate (short term) needs of the people. Consequently, it is unthinkable for these sources to meet the demands associated with major industrial, agricultural and other business activities. To tackle these problems, it has been planed that electric lines will be further expanded. In this case, priority will be given to the areas where there are more important economic activities. But this doesn’t mean the remote areas will be overlooked. When you undertake such projects, naturally there is a budget constraint. That is why we are forced to prioritize and achieve our overall objectives stage by stage.

What I am saying should not be associated only with heat energy sources or thermal generation. As the problems associated with energy sources have been major economic constraints all over the world, there is a search for alternative energy sources associated with technological advancement. Therefore, instead of limiting ourselves to promoting heat energy, we need also to make effective use of the opportunities associated with alternative energy sources. In this case, solar energy is one of the most important sources of energy. Solar energy, for example, covers a considerable fraction of the electric needs of industrialized states.  When it comes to this source of energy, we are more advantaged – there is enough source of solar energy in this part of the world. So we need to take advantage of what we are naturally endowed with. Since wind energy is also available in some parts of the country, we can also use this source of energy for complementing the process of addressing the energy needs in Eritrea. In relation to this, there have been some small-scale pilot projects undertaken by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. For example, to ascertain the potential for wind energy, there is a small-scale pilot project in Assab. The intention is to expand such possibilities little by little. Since the area is endowed with such source of energy, making use of this opportunity along with solar energy will be very helpful.  If we are able to use these opportunities extensively, this will have considerable economic advantages. While using these sources of energy, apart from the initial cost associated with this kind of investment, there are no considerable running costs. In such cases, dependency on oil and energy expenses can be minimized significantly.  When it comes to the case of remote areas where there are no well-established electric lines, these energy sources are very helpful in the provision of essential services such as educational, health and other services associated with water supply projects.

While it may be premature to talk about this possibility without conducting adequate research, there is a potential for underground heat energy in the southern part of the Southern Red Sea Region, around Abu Ali. This was researched during the Italian colonial period in Eritrea. In many countries such as Kenya, and especially in Iceland and Italy, there have been attempts to make use of such possibilities. Using the required technology, this source of energy can help us minimize energy expenses. In this case, volcanic eruptions that take place in rift valleys can be helpful. While we can certainly make use of this source of energy, the study related to this has not been yet finalized. Roughly speaking, the areas that naturally generate hot water such as Mai-W’uy and Irafaile could be potential indications of this possibility.  However, it has to be noted that such tasks require considerable investment cost and the acquisition of sophisticated technology. Compared to the sources of energy mentioned earlier, at this moment this is a remote priority. Generally, the combined effect of the aforesaid energy sources on the economy of the country as a whole is significantly helpful.

A secure shelter is one of the fundamental concerns of the people.  It seems that housing problem further worsens inflationary problems. How can housing problem and its subsequent effects be minimized? Is there a plan to build houses? Generally, how is this problem, which affects the lives of many segments of the society, handled?

We can’t think of a family without a residential house. Traditionally, especially in the time when modern cities were not well-developed, securing a residential house was a normal process in the life of Eritrean villages. A person who happened not to have a house was unlikely to establish a family. Stated differently, for a person marriage requirement or concern number one was having a residential house

At this moment, economic activities and development programs are being expanded from time to time in all sectors of the economy. If we are to meet the demands associated with the expansion of such activities and programs, there must be a corresponding increase in the number of houses.  In connection to this, we are unhappy with what has been so far done towards addressing this problem. Many hope to have a residential house in Asmara or other major cities in the country. I feel such people have to be narrow-minded. For this reason, it is not possible to claim that we have progressed well in this regard in case if we happen to have well-built houses in a few cities only. This is to mean that balanced development is somehow linked with having houses that are fairly distributed across all parts of the country.  Hence, we have a national strategy designed to solve the housing problem we are experiencing and that strategy is aligned with our overall development strategy.  For this strategy to be practicable, we need to further break it down into specific programs and projects.  So far what we have been doing to solve this problem has not been well planned.

Accordingly, we have grossly planned about the programs and projects for building residential houses in the western, southwestern, northwestern and other parts of the country. As stated above, this has to be further detailed. While we have six regions in the country, when it comes to development plans, we have divided the country into three development zones. These are eastern plains and escarpments, the highland (the central zone) and the lowland zones. There are different needs that have to be addressed in relation to infrastructure, agriculture, industrialization, trade and different types of services in each of these zones. In all of these zones, the issue of residential houses is a very basic issue. This issue is not only about building new houses in the already established towns, it is also about building new towns. Towns are developed in this way; there are no heaven sent towns in the world. New towns are often established and villages grow into towns along with the growth of the economy, with the gradual improvement of the life style of the citizenry as well as with the expansion of economic activities. So we have developed a national scheme regarding residential houses that takes into account the said factors.

For establishing new towns as well as for increasing the number of residential houses in already established towns, first and foremost there must be secure water supply. In this case, when we say adequate water supply, we refer not only to the current users but we also take into consideration potential users whose number may increase as a result of the increase in residential houses and in the overall growth of the economy. In towns and semi-towns as well as in other areas where there are extensive economic activities, there is no secure life without secure water supply. So we need to ensure that there must be an effective way of managing water supply. Therefore, our strategy in relation to building residential houses needs to be aligned with water supply strategies.  The national housing scheme has to be also integrated with the subsequent needs for electric services, health care and educational services as well as with the needs associated with recreation and sports.

When we think of housing problems, we should also take into account, the need for houses that are linked with different business purposes.  Consequently, our national housing scheme has been designed bearing in mind these concerns as the life of a town is not thinkable to be complete without the aforesaid considerations. Further, thinking qualitatively, the houses we intend to build must have acceptable standards. So we should not be inclined towards having houses that are pieced together with the help of sacks or pieces of a roof. We need to have houses that meet at least the minimum requirements related to what has been stated in the plan of action.

The issue of supply of fundamental building materials should not be also overlooked when we consider the need to tackle the housing problem we have. In this case, the cement factory will certainly be helpful for having a secure supply of cement required for major construction projects. As it is not possible to successfully build residential and other houses with imported cement, the production capacity of the factory must be strengthened in order to produce enough cement to meet at least local demands for cement. There must be also a secure supply of sand, concrete and lime as well as the materials that are need for having tiles, ceilings, doors and windows, water pipelines and electric lines. Thus, when we talk about building residential houses, we need to consider these concerns too. All these things may not be produced locally- in some cases we may be forced to import some of the materials. In this case, we need to proactively think on how to have a secure supply of such materials.   Besides, we need to introduce precast technology in addition to what we have started to introduce M-2 technology. This is helpful not only for facilitating the tasks associated with the construction of houses, but it is also helpful for building houses that have a good standard.

Most of the materials required for building residential houses can be supplied locally. So the expenses incurred for building houses may not be that problematic. For example, if we are able to produce adequate cement, it can be provided affordably and thus it can be easily accessible.  The same is also true with the case of other materials that can be produced in the country. However, in this case we need to note how critical the capacity for implementing these tasks is. We can have the right machinery. We can also have the right instruments for construction. But all these things may mean nothing if there are no right people for doing the job competently. In all the activities that have to be carried out, the role of brainpower is very critical. More importantly, the capacity to regulate what has to be done is also another critical success factor.

When what we have done so far is assessed in terms of what has been asserted above, we have not achieved something considerable.  Actually, there have been some initiatives that are mainly associated with the demands of those citizens who are in the Diaspora. This demand is further increasing from time to time. When it comes to responding to the needs of those citizens who live within the country, we have done nothing satisfactory.   While there are some houses built for dealing with some immediate problems in some areas, such activities have not been that effective and the houses built in such a way fail to meet the required standard.

In sum, just like all the other development strategies we have, we can’t hope to materialize our strategy of building residential houses in a year or two.  For this reason, the components of the strategy will be divided into different categories according to the priorities associated with the overall development program in the country. In arranging our priorities and the relevance connected with each priority, instead of luxuriously focusing on large cities, more emphasis will be placed on the need to respond to the needs of those who live in the remote (marginalized) parts of the country.

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