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“Strengthening our implementation and resource utilization capacity will catalyze objectives of food security”; President Isaias Afwerki

  • -President Isaias Afwerki gave a live radio and television interview with national media outlets on the 7th of October, focusing on various domestic and regional developments. Excerpts of the first part of the interview follow:
  • -Mr. President, while it was okay in terms of its coverage when it started, people were concerned that this year’s rainfall did not start at the expected time. In relation to this issue, how do you assess the general achievements associated with food security in Eritrea?

Indisputably, food is a very basic concern for every citizen and food security is an important priority. However, as food security may be associated with subsistence, we need to be strategic enough to think beyond food security. The ultimate objective in relation to this issue has to be the improvements in the quality of life of citizens. Further, instead of limiting our food security strategy to our current situation, we should think strategically in terms of what has to be done in terms of improving the quality of life of citizens in proportion or in response to population increase in five, ten, fifteen years. In our long term strategy, we should also think in terms of producing surplus food that can be exported as there are potential opportunities to do so. Hence, our strategic goals in the agricultural sector and other sectors have to be designed and assessed from such a long-term perspective associated with improving the overall quality of life of our people.

More importantly, we need to be much more concerned about the fundamental investments that serve as preconditions to food security. One such fundamental precondition is water resources management. More emphasis has to be placed on irrigational projects considering the significant value they add to rainwater-fed harvest. For this purpose, preserving water becomes a key priority. Therefore, to make optimal use of the potentially available water resources in the country we need to have a comprehensively effective strategy for preserving and controlling water resources.

In the last 25 years, as part of our endeavors to preserve and control water resources, we have constructed dams, check dams and water diversion canals in different areas and accordingly we have acquired significant cumulative experiences. For these efforts to be further fruitful, catchment areas and their sources need to be studied properly and our water preservation strategy needs to be comprehensive enough to incorporate terracing and afforestation activities. We need to focus not only on the catchment areas. We should also equally focus on the water source areas in our water resources management endeavors.

Making use of the water resources of the Barka, Gash, and Anseba rivers, as well as those eastern rivers extending from Qarora to the Assab areas, is a long-term process and requires substantial investments, resource mobilization, capacity, and sacrifices. However, without doing this, food security projects can hardly be achievable. When judged in terms of the challenges we experienced in the last 25 years, what we have so far achieved is promising and this will catalyze what we have planned for the coming 5 to 10 years.

What comes next to preserving water is making optimal use of what has been stored. For this purpose, the traditional production system needs to be transformed by employing appropriate technology so that we can boost our agricultural produce; we need to be capable to harvest two or three times in a year by multiplying our production capacity effectively and efficiently. In addition to boosting agricultural harvest, improving livestock conditions and our cash crops production capacity are important components of our strategy to ensuring food security. It has to be noted that our strategic orientation focuses not only on ensuring food security but also on producing surplus food to be exported.

Therefore, we need to have strategic projects that are suitable to the varying situations of the three economic development zones of Eritrea. Apart from the some minor projects associated with drinking water demands, so far major water resources utilization projects have not been part of our priorities in the eastern lowland. In the western lowlands the utilization rate is not more than 20 percent of the preserved water. Hence, the tasks ahead are very demanding. However, the experiences we have gained are adequately useful.

To enhance productivity and improve the utilization capacity linked with the stored water resources, we need to invest substantially in technological facilities, equipment, chemicals, and the like so that we can have our mode of production transformed. It is encouraging that we have created an enabling environment that will serve as a stepping stone for further achievements in the future. Food security is not that problematic in Eritrea and we do not need to be that concerned about this issue. Given the enabling environment that we have created and the future strategic plans we have designed, strengthening our implementation capacity and our resources utilization capacity further is likely to effectively catalyze the efforts aiming at ensuring food security

  • -As you mentioned earlier, so far many large scale projects have been implemented, including Gerset, Kerkebet, Gergera, Gahtielay, and others, for the purpose of enhancing our capacity to store the water resources we are endowed with as part of the endeavor to overcome the problems resulting from the fact that our region is prone to recurrent drought and inadequate rainwater. What upcoming plans are there for making effective use of these completed projects?

We can claim that considerably adequate water has been stored in our dams. However, we have not been able to effectively utilize such opportunities. Consider the Kerkebet Dam Project. The water preserved there is about 200 million cubic meters. This dam is very advantageous when we consider the size of the plains surrounding it, which can be easily cultivated. While the dam was being constructed, there were plans to ensure an effective utilization of the water resources there. However, apart from minor projects, given the potential benefits of this project, so far adequately enough land has not been cultivated. To make effective use of such dams, effective irrigational systems need to be established and adequate electric supply has to be secured for their proper operationalization. While at this time we may claim that the energy issue has been resolved, since it is advisable to have cost-effective practices, there is a plan to install 8 megabyte solar panels in the area. Another very important concern is that the water stored in the dam is more than what is required to cultivate the arable land surrounding Kerkebet. Hence, there is a need to expand the land that can be cultivated using the water resources of this dam. To realize this objective, that is to cover 40 to 50 kilometers towards the north, west, and south, a distribution system must be established. All this is to indicate that out capacity to effectively utilize the completed dams has not yet developed to the required extent and this is our major challenge

As part of proper utilization of the resources we have created, we should also think of having a feasible option with regard to what can be effectively and efficiently produced (such as cotton, sugar or others) in the area given the comparative advantage associated with each option.

Comparatively speaking, infrastructural projects that are useful for ensuring proper water resources utilization have been constructed at Gerset, Fanco, Alebu, and there are also Tessenei’s and Aligidir’s already existing infrastructural systems. The same is not true with the new projects in these areas. When judged in terms of the potential of the available water resources, there are similar underutilized dam projects at Gollij, Omhajer, and Bademit. Because the issue of a distribution system has not been resolved, only 20 to 25 percent of the water resources are being utilized.

There are also similar issues that need to be addressed in relation to Asmara, as well as other small towns and villages. For example, the benefits to be accrued from the Gergera Dam Project should not be limited to the area and its immediate vicinities. To ensure effective and efficient utilization of the available water resources in the area, the benefits need to be extended to such areas as Hazemo, Dekemhare, Korbaria, and other areas towards the east. As is the case with the other similar projects, the distribution system required for materializing the aforesaid objective has not yet been established.

The Gahtielat Dam Project is not yet completed. The intention of having this project is not limited to providing drinking water for the residents of Massawa. Thinking that, in the long term, the benefits of this project can be extended to other areas such as Laba, I’in, Felket, and A’get, certainly there will be other projects resulting from this dam project. As is the case with other projects, the issue of establishing a distribution system also matters with regard to these plans. There are also other rivers, to the south of Massawa, such as the Wia River, that have to be targeted as part of the water resources management projects in the eastern lowlands.

In sum, we can claim that we have mastered preserving water resources. However, the degree of utilization of the potential benefits of such projects is being dictated by the need to establish distribution systems and other infrastructural issues. If these issues are resolved in the coming 2 to 3 years, we will be in a better position and our 2018 plans are associated with these concerns. The challenge is that such projects require substantial investments and we will see how much they will move forward in 2018. Undeniably, there are sacrifices linked to the opportunity cost of placing more emphasis on these projects.

  • -Mr. President, there have been some measures aimed at stabilizing our currency and preventing contraband practices. In addition to these measures, what other measures are there to fight illegal brokerage and speculation that distorts the economy as well as price controls?

This is a very difficult issue, which is significantly influenced by externally engineered conspiracies. The central issue with regard to the economic problems the citizenry experience in this case is mainly linked to the purchasing power of our currency. To determine whether the amount we pay as buyers is reasonable or not, we need to compare how much is required to pay for the same item in other economies. For example, we can compare the price of one liter of milk in Eritrea and Germany in terms of a common currency (such as the dollar). When prices increase from time to time and if the Nakfa is devalued, then the purchasing power of the money at our hands (which we earn as a salary or other forms) becomes weak. There is also speculation which worsens the situation. It has been assessed that the cost of production of one liter of milk is not more than 6 to 7 Nakfa. Hence, it is illogical and not reasonable to sell one liter of milk for 20 Nakfa or more.

In the last 25 years, the regulatory measures have been loose. The distortions are mainly caused due to the exchange and money transfer processes of various currencies entering Eritrea from other countries. These processes and transactions are not conducted through the formal banking system. While there may be multiple compounding factors devaluing the Nakfa, the aforementioned situation is a major cause of devaluation of the currency. The financial transactions associated with the money that is being remitted to Eritrea by Eritreans residing in the Diaspora are not conducted in the banks. The reason is that while the exchange rate in the bank is 15 Nakfa per dollar (if we take dollar as an example), it is 30 Nakfa in the black market. Such an organized crime has been common for more than ten years. The policy changes (including adjustment and control measures) aim to tackle these illegal transactions.

There are organized operations blocking the money to be remitted from entering formal or legal channels of transaction. This organized crime is intended to undermine the Eritrean economy. Those who engineer such a network are outside the country and any Eritrean citizen in the Diaspora who wants to remit money to their relatives and friends becomes part of these transactions because there are service provider shops outside Eritrea, which provide Nakfa in exchange for a foreign currency that has to be remitted to the country. They also take away Nakfa from Eritrea. All these service providers do not have business licenses to do what they do. Since they are outside Eritrea, these illegal service providers can hardly be controlled.

In this case, Eritrean citizens are expected to realize that being part of this process is not advantageous to themselves as long as such a process devalues Nakfa and this weakens the purchasing power of their money – Nakfa that their relatives and friends receive in Eritrea. It is good to be responsible citizens and understand that strengthening our currency benefits each of us, not only collectively but also individually. We will be advantaged if we ensure that our actions strengthen the purchasing power of our money. The policy change introduced should serve this purpose. Renewing our currency aims at controlling the Nakfa that was in circulation.

It should also be related to the fact that basic consumption goods and strategic goods need to be either produced domestically or imported using the reserve of our hard currency. This is generally linked with improving the overall productivity in our economy.

It is premature to talk about the results of the recently introduced policy changes. Who knows, there might also be unintended consequences. It should also be noted that there are compounding factors affecting the process. However, as stated above, it has to be strongly noted that what matters more is that our focus should be to enhance productivity in all sectors of our economy.

Regarding the issue of contraband, it has to be realized that even if we have the best policies aimed at controlling or managing contraband practices, what matters more is our implementation capacity. This is a major challenge. Nevertheless, we have learned important lessons from our cumulative experiences and such experiences will be useful in improving our implementation capacity gradually and cumulatively.

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