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“We are at a good stage in our agricultural endeavor….”President Isaias

It is to be recalled that President IsaiasAfwerki conducted a 3-day extensive interview from the 6thto 8thof September 2013, with local media outlets on pertaining domestic regional and international issues. Excerpts of the first part of the interview follow:

Your Excellency, according to the Geez Calendar we are changing from summer to harvest season, so our first question will be in relation to food security as it is common in this region, this year’s rain season was not been satisfactory. What is the Government’s national plan to utilize the many dams and wells it has been constructing to yield a concrete result in agriculture and agro-industry? How far have we gone in this respect?

Rain is not dependable. If we take for instance the record of the amount of rain in the past, we would ultimately come to the conclusion that there is no other option than freeing ourselves from depending solely from rain. If we could be able to collect the rain and use it in the places we want and in amount we control, we would be able to manage well even in seasons where there is no enough rain. However, we cannot altogether be free from rain-fed agriculture. That is why we need to ask what we need in order to make the transition towards an agricultural practice where irrigation plays predominant role and where our yield goes beyond consumption to become export oriented.

The theme we’ve been following that is preserving every drop of water and the soil should be accompanied by small and medium projects of constructing different dams in order for it to be effective. There has to be a practical plan. To make the transition from rain fed agriculture to agriculture with 70 or 80 percent irrigation based such projects should not be interrupted. But this is easier said than done. Our land terrain might sometimes be a blessing, and we can accomplish a lot with such a terrain. But one needs to study the record of the amount of rain and the different diversion schemes, terraces and other activities that need to be done in each and every watershed. This also has to have a time frame. Even preparing the land that needs to be cultivated is by itself a big work. This requires a massive technological and economic power. If we properly manage the watershed area the water could either drawn and enriches underground water or heads towards dams. There is no such land as unproductive if there is a plan to properly manage the resources.

The other issue that comes with water reservoir and irrigation facilities is the question of technology. Every reservoir along with rain should at least be able to produce two harvests if not three per year. Furrow or drill system is not affordable. By employing all the techniques mentioned and making massive investment we can utilize every drop of water to get the maximum output. To this end we have to introduce advanced irrigation technology and use better seeds. In any case it needs a lot of hard work. Even if the technology is acquired the question of energy to run the technology is another issue. Especially because the dams and water reservoir are usually away from areas that receive electric services, hence one needs to find its own energy sources. We can of course consider other alternative energy sources like solar and wind. We can also employ the use of gravity coupled with other technological alternatives.

In order to maximize our productivity, we need to take the experiment in a given area and find ways of applying it to the whole nation. Places might differ in their size and the amount of rain they get so we can add water reservoir, diversion schemes, and irrigation techniques to some places. We might want to speed up such program and projects, but the issue should be seen from the point of view of one’s capacity in terms of economy, machinery, on top of other government priority we have to take into consideration all this factor be practical.

All in all, there might be seemingly big projects that are accomplished, but in light of what we need to achieve what has been done is very marginal. There are other related topics like distribution and mobility of people, services and others. If a reservoir is built in a place where no one lives, it didn’t hit its target. These are social issues that need to be taken in to consideration. The reservoirs have to be inhabited by people ultimately. And for these inhabitants to whole heartedly accept the new places and properly use the place to become highly production, then they need to be trained. The new villages that are established around the vicinities of such places have to be provided with social services like health, education, transportation, energy, communications, and other services. Some places have good services but in other remote places where there is the potential for agricultural activities new settlements cannot be done only in papers. The bottom line is whatever facilities one puts in place for agricultural purposes, man power is absolutely essential. Besides, food security goes beyond producing for domestic consumption and aims for export.

In general our agricultural output fluctuates as far as meeting the national demand is concerned. We should be able to meet this demand through irrigation even when there is no enough rain. And we are on the verge of achieving this goal. We cannot altogether be independent from rain-fed agriculture, however we have not also reached to the point where we can confidently say we have made the transition to irrigation led agriculture. But whatever the condition of the rain is we are on the right track towards our goal. It needs time. This year’s rainy season might not have been enough in Asmara and its vicinity while in other place it might have been satisfactory. In any case we will have time to evaluate this year’s rainy season at the end of September.

Mr. President, can you elaborate on the Agro-Industrial institutions?

If you are thinking of products in terms of local consumption and exports, you need to have agro industries. What is the use selling raw product? Processed and packed products are more advantageous for both local and foreign markets. And to undertake such processing ventures for all types of products, you will need industries. Such projects lead you to the importance of power supply. Electricity is vital for establishing industries and other investment ventures.

For instance if there is an area suitable for cultivating cotton, you are in need of many facilities for processing it. Is it better to export the raw material or the manufactured fabrics? If it’s the latter, then you will need an industry. If you want to manufacture clothes from the fabrics, you will need yet another industry… it’s a continuous chain and only when you are capable to provide all the chain components, you should be able to say you have fully realized the project.

These projects might seem small. Some of them might be aimed for domestic markets but they will still demand the necessary packing facilities, efficient transport system. We should not look at the phrase “food security” alone; we should be able to view it from different perspectives. You should not neglect your envisioned projects because of shortage of water. Agro industries are vital and complementary with all food security endeavors.

The topic of agro industries is a vast one. But we have been working on it and have registered some successful results. There have been negative ones also but they shouldn’t keep us from lurching forward, except maybe the availability of resources or funding. But I think the picture is clear.

On the issue of the provision of potable water supply in urban and rural areas, water supply problems persist in several Eritrean cities, including Asmara. What plans are there to alleviate such problems?

There is one plain truth here: humans should go to where there is water and not the other way around. If we take this statement as a guideline, all projects should take into consideration the development endeavors and economic progress being registered.

When talking about water supply, we will remain disoriented if we are going to focus only on the urban centers. There should be a general understanding when we say people should go to where there is water.

As we observe through history, civilizations tend to live in specific places where there is water because water is a necessity for living. And then they would settle there and with the advent of modernization (roads, electricity and other developments) cities emerge.

In our case, there are areas where the natural resources have not yet been exploited and where we can carry out development endeavors. These are giving good signs of economic progress through the different projects being implemented. The bottom-line is however the fact that the flow of people needs to be adjusted with the different factors defining economy and its growth.

Coming back to your point,it’s being said that there is water shortage in Asmara. If you ask me, I don’t think that’s a priority for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean water is not essential in Asmara, water important to improve livelihood.

With people moving towards bigger cities, and water consumption going over the line, it would be problematic to ensure adequate supply. If water is considered as a national resource, then who is really making good use of it? People living outside the urban and semi-urban areas barely have enough water to drink, let alone for other purposes. These are also citizens and have their rights, and therefore should have access to the basic services, most of all potable water. It’s not a matter of charity, it is their right. If you are layering the necessary infrastructure to provide these urban and semi urban areas with potable water, then you also need to draw the other people to places with enough water and basic living necessities.

If we take a look at foreign cities and towns and their master plans, the first thing that comes, apart from energy, is water. For instance it rains for nine months in Singapore. The city is like a village in size and yet, with all their water, every hotel has a notice cautioning against the waste of water. We saw the same when we went to New York the year before last, and stayed in a hotel by the Hudson River. The city has a population size of let’s say 15 or 20 million, but they have enough water and didn’t need to put up similar cautions.

We are not even close to their stage, but they can serve as examples to consider how water supply, its infrastructure and related services can be planned in cities, towns and rural areas.

Housing, water supply, its distribution and efficient use should be carefully considered so as to improve the living standards of the people. The ongoing endeavors of food security, agriculture, dams and irrigation, all need to be geared towards that goal.

People should not be forced to move to where there is water, it should be by choice. But one cannot and doesn’t have the right to say ‘I’ll stay here just make sure to provide me with all the water I want.’ Some cities had water treatment facilities installed during their foundation, which perhaps need to be updated and modernized so as to be able to recycle the floodwater and factory wastages.

We need to look at the issue of “water shortage” from a wider perspective. Just because tap water or the water truck didn’t come one day, there is no need to blow the case out of proportion.

Nevertheless, these people reserve their right to potable water. And since water is a right, there needs to be efficient planning on its utilization. People can complain but how can these complaints be addressed? Are they even justified? These and other questions need to be considered.

If the media broadcasts provide good campaigns on the usage and importance of water, every citizen would raise his or her awareness and we would have abundant water, enabling us to use it effectively in the dams, distribution centers and even our homes.

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