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Interview with President Isaias Afwerki – Part III

Q1. In your keynote address at the 28th Independence Anniversary in 2019, you had detailed an 11-point economic and social development roadmap, which highlighted roads, ports and coastlines, transportation, industry, efficiency and transparency, effective implementation, and other key areas and sectors. Although much has been achieved, the myriad extraneous challenges faced have understandably curtailed implementation of all these programmes with the desired pace and scope. As part of continued efforts to push through this roadmap, can you expound on the priorities set out for 2023?

A. The topic is quite extensive and lumping the various subheadings together would be a disservice to its complexity and breadth. One must recognize innate interdependence of the development sectors. Indeed, any setback in one area affects the rest of the chain. As such, their implementation requires careful sequencing and the setting of priorities. Furthermore, within these priorities, some sectors are fundamental and must be viewed as absolutely critical to our ability to implement all other plans.

Within our context, water, in all its aspects, remains one such fundamental sector. From its administrative and institutional framework, to the utilization of modern technologies, to its various uses (drinking, hygiene, agriculture, industry, etc.) – water is fundamental and our development planning has been predicated on this understanding. The primary priority that must be attached to water is thus palpable as it affects all other sectors and cannot be relegated to the back-burner under any circumstances

Another related sector that warrants priority is energy – power generation and electricity supply – which, for obvious reasons, affects the progress of all other sectors and industries.

Following these two priority areas would be the comprehensive sector of physical infrastructure. This entails roads; transportation services, -including by sea, land, and air –  railways; cableway, etc. This sector is wide-ranging and similarly affects all other sectors and industries, which is why it, too, must be listed as a fundamental sector.

Obviously, the prioritization and sequencing of these sectors does not require any re-invention. However, what is important at this point in time is to carefully assess how much of what we planned were we able to achieve; the extent to which the targets set were effectively implemented?

For example, in terms of water infrastructure, the huge task includes the construction of large, medium, and small dams; the geographical mapping of such projects; the ability to conserve rainwater; the utilization of modern and appropriate technologies depending on the terrain; etc.  Furthermore, the task includes a wide gamut of other interlinked measures such as afforestation, terracing, as well as the prudent utilization of subterranean and sea water in terms of potential resources that can be tapped beyond rainfall-based water harvesting infrastructures.

The accumulated progress in this multi-layered task; what has been achieved in the annual afforestation and terracing campaigns can be assessed thoroughly.  In this respect, although much has been achieved, especially in view of the enormity of the task, a generous estimate would place it at the 20% mark only.   That is to say, we have not been able to meet our desired goals and utilize the full potential in this area.  Indeed, much remains to be done.

The dam at Kerkebet has the potential of accumulating 300 million cubic meters of water.  But the question remains has it been adequately utilized?  Moreover, important and pending water infrastructural programmes that are still on the drawing board include the Gash, Anseba, and Setit (with its peculiarities) rivers.

In a nutshell, the demand for drinking water has not been fully met on a national scale. Whether it is in Asmara, Keren, Massawa, or any other populated urban area, a key goal remains ensuring that every citizen has adequate and clean potable water. The same goal applies to the rural areas; including remote villages.  We obviously have network of dams built for the purpose especially in some large urban cities such as Tokor and Mai Nefhi in Asmara. But this is not adequate both in the specific area in question as well as from a nation-wide perspective.  We must recognize that the need for clean drinking water, for hygiene, and for all other services related to the population’s needs, has yet to be fully met.

All of this is to say that complacency is not an option. Yes, there is full clarity in terms of charting out our development priorities and marshalling our resources for their implementation.   But the enormity of the task requires continuous and unremitting endeavours. The agricultural dimension must also be taken into account here.  We have to gauge progress in terms of increased harvest from the utilization of the accumulated water; the type of produce as well as agro-industrial processing that we have been able to embark on.  All these facts should impel us to work with greater vigour and at an accelerated pace for the coming two-three years.

The concrete plans for accelerated work, and the implementation modalities and time lines, must therefore be charted out with full clarity to instill awareness in each person to take full responsibility and work intensively so as to meet our targets.

The interdependence that obtains between the priority sectors described above as well as the social services and other sectors is profound indeed.  Extensive and inclusive discourse at an opportune time will thus be vital to raise public awareness and thereby enhance more effective implementation.

Q2. As you have described above, the GOE has since long embarked on building the water infrastructure and related programmes against the backdrop of climate change and to reduce the country’s total dependence on rainfall. As such, the number of dams constructed thus far – namely, Kerkebet, Gahtelai, Mslam, Logo , Gerset, and 2 Fancos, Bademit – have a total capacity of 530 million cubic meters. In this respect, what are GOE plans for extensive agricultural irrigation?  what are the tangible projects in the offing?

A. This relates to the points raised earlier. The country may have accumulated more than 500 million cubic meters of water in the big dams constructed so far, but this is not adequate in terms of the latent potential. Furthermore, and to really measure the impact of the water saved, one must be able to calculate and trace the usage of each cubic meter.

More importantly, the impact can be greater when we are able to fully transition from traditional methods of irrigation to more advanced methods that allow the society to not only save water but use it more effectively. Production of fruits and vegetables is increasing all over the country through utilization of dams or by drilling wells.  But the methodology is not optimal and must be supplanted by more effective systems.

Our goal in this area is to effect sustainable behavioral change and move the society away from traditional methods of fallow irrigation that waste water and are not particularly effective. Of course, this requires the concurrent provision of alternative methods, and this is where context-based and cost-effective modern irrigation methods come in.

This is a crucial point because if one uses irrigation methods that do not take the topography and other key physical factors of an area into consideration, then the cost-effectiveness falls short of expectations. One method, for example, that is found to be particularly effective in our context is the utilization of gravity, where we make use of hills and mountains around project areas. Water is pumped from nearby dams to large water silos strategically installed at top of this hills and this is then pushed down through gravity. This method has proven to drastically minimize cost and maximize efficiency.

Professionals in this field have shown that more advanced, modern methods use about one tenth of the water used through traditional irrigation methods. The cost-effectiveness of this is obviously evident as one is able to multiply the efforts by ten.

As mentioned earlier, this requires the careful selection of irrigation methods that are appropriate to the particular context – this includes ecological variables, topography, soil type, etc. Utilization of appropriate and optimal irrigation methods will enable the country to reap two, three or even four harvests a year; instead of one harvest under rain-fed or fallow irrigation as is broadly the case currently.

All this is to emphasize that in order to effectively use water, all the different aspects and input must be taken into account, and this is a much wider area than simply capturing and collecting water in dams. Even as it relates to the capturing and collection of water, we have rivers and subterranean waters that have yet to be fully utilized. This requires further expansion of water infrastructure including the construction of micro and check dams, and wells. All these combined efforts will substantially augment the volume of water that will be accumulated annually at the national level.

In tandem with the appropriate technology of water infrastructure that we introduce, it is vital to focus on the selection of appropriate seeds to increase production.  Programmes of Animal husbandry, animal feed, inland fisheries are supplementary programmes that will impact overall production growth.

In fact, if assessed objectively, the current phase can be dubbed as a transitional phase in which much experience was gained and lessons learned – this includes our gradual ability to substitute imported technologies through in-country research and development.

This leads to the point mentioned earlier about the water sector being as wide-ranging and intersecting with various other areas, including energy. On this point, it would seem unsustainable to keep relying on imported input such as generators and fuel. As such, one must examine other more effective methods that would produce energy utilizing the environment around us. This leads us to considerations in areas of renewable energies.

Above all of the points mentioned, however, our human capital – in terms of optimal organizational skills, technical capacity, as well as the average citizen’s understanding of and participation in all areas – remains the most critical and fundamental area that would enable us to fully implement these development plans. This requires the commitment to, and partnership amongst, all sections – particularly administrations in all zobas and subzobas. And, it also requires the provision of key tools and appropriate trainings that would enhance every citizen’s ability to contribute to the best of one’s abilities.

All of this goes back to a point that must be repeated, the work accomplished thus far, although by some measures considerable, does not meet the latent potential and as such one can conclude that much has not materialized. This requires us to redouble all efforts.

Q3. Mr. President, we will now proceed to a sector that is attracting a lot of attention these days; i.e. the blue economy.   In this regard, even though Eritrea possess a long coastline and many islands, it has not been able to utilize these endowments as desired due to various reasons. Are there any plans to do so in the coming years?

A. This is yet another topic that falls short of expectations. The gap between aspirations or expectations on the hand, and reality or potential on the other is really big.

The country’s endowment in fisheries is huge as the annual maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is estimated to be between 80,000 to 120,000 tones, and the fact that the majority of the fish species is migratory also adds to its value and advantage, making it sustainable and resistant to overfishing. If we factor in the lowest MSY, meaning 80,000 tones, we find that although 60% of these are small pelagic fish, which may not yield huge export revenues, 40% constitute different and highly-desired species that would feed into the high-end export market. Unfortunately, the exploitation of marine resources remains limited at about or even less than 10,000 tons per year, which does not even fully cover domestic demand.

Naturally, this begs the question – why were we not able to take advantage of this incredibly rich and reserved sector? The first requirement is human capital and capacity, followed by key inputs such as boats, trollers, processing supplies, and other critical tools that would facilitate and enable utilization of this sector. Other bottlenecks include the availability of harbours and piers, limited energy supplies, and other associated infrastructural facilities.

As we embarked on the development of this sector, three sites were identified – Tio, Eidi and Gelalo. Key infrastructure was put in place, including small harbours, ice-making and cooling facilities, boat-fixing hangers. Unfortunately, for various reasons, all of these facilities are not functional at this point in time.

This flags the critical point that in order to effectively deliver on targets in this sector, all basic infrastructure – energy, water as well as sea and land transportation – must be put in place and careful consideration must be paid to the sequencing of inputs.

However, this will not dampen our determination.  We have gleaned important lessons.  We have to deploy all the essential material inputs in all the main ports and harbours throughout the coastline as well as the requisite skilled manpower in order to effectively utilize all our substantial marine resource, which is something we have already embarked on.

We should note that a Coastal Development Strategy has already been drafted and is under implementation.  This provides a roadmap for this sector. The strategy deals with around 1300 kilometers of total coastal area located in a very delicate and strategic zone. The strategy further recognizes the latent potential of this sector including proper and detailed mapping of fishing areas.   It also addresses associated development tasks in critical and interlinked sectors – roads, water, harbours, boats, hangars, energy, ice-making machines, etc. – that ought to be accomplished before we can begin to utilize this potential to its fullest.

Our coast extends from Ras Doumeira to Ras Kasar and if one takes stock of the infrastructure put in place thus far, the result is not particularly impressive. To begin with, road construction has not gone beyond temporary structures that require annual maintenance. Similarly, although we speak of two critical ports, Massawa and Assab, the need for smaller harbours along the coast that feed into the overall structure remains evident. Furthermore, we have yet to ensure that our coastal population is fully introduced to new technologies, is able to contribute to, or receive, adequate services from this important sector.

All this is to say that the work accomplished thus far falls far short from our objectives and desired targets even taking into account the prevalent constrains. Nonetheless, as mentioned earlier, this has given us the impetus to redouble our efforts. Obviously, this is not something that can be accomplished overnight, and requires us to honestly recognize the shortcomings and commit to making up for lost opportunities and time. The potential is absolutely vast and is slated to contribute immensely to the national economy – from exporting fresh fish, to canning, to drying, etc. But again, this requires an integrated and sequenced approach, planning, and implementation.

Another sub-area within this sector that remains underutilized, or to some extent utilized but not at satisfactory levels, is the production of salt. At this time, this is confined to the very basic processing and packaging, and nothing has been done to expand it to larger scale, industrial usage, or even find ways to add value to the basic product. Furthermore, natural resources, other than fish, found on the coast or at sea have also not been fully explored and utilized. This includes the production of natural fertilizers, mangrove planting, among other examples.

Similarly, the potential for renewable energy, including wind, solar and most especially geothermal energy is also considerable. Geothermal energy in particular is an area that we have talked about for a very long time and something that we know can yield great results being as it is located on the Rift Valley.

Interestingly, during the recent State visit to Kenya, we visited a geothermal energy farm that expanded from 20MW capacity ten years ago to its current 1100MW capacity. We, too, have this potential.  And again, this is not a new topic but something we have been talking about.  Unfortunately, it remains undeveloped to-date.

Now imagine the cumulative effects and impact integrated development in the energy sector – that comprise of geothermal, wind, solar and thermal – would have had on the development of all other sectors, including the programmes of Coastal Development.  Let us remember that our national development strategy is anchored on three Development Zones – the Coastal Areas, the Highlands and the Western Lowlands. In this context, the development programmes in the Coastal areas are indeed vast.   All this is to say that our Coastal Development Strategy is not confined to fish and fish products and comprises all the endowments found along our ecological-rich shores.

It is imperative to deploy all the essential facilities at this point in time with a sense of urgency.  This is the task at hand.  The drawbacks encountered in the past and the lessons gleaned will add impetus to our determination to implement the programmes that we have already embarked on.  We are determined to pursue and implement all components of the Blue Economy – port development, the tourism industry etc. extensively.  This will require qualitative changes in our methodology of implementation; in our organizational and administrative capabilities.

Q4. The mining sector, along with other economic sectors, has evident contributions to national growth.  In this regard, there are several ongoing commercial activities in the extractive sector.   Are there additional concrete plans to exploit more extensively the latent potential in the sector?

A. The country’s mineral resources are exceptionally huge and, in some respects, incomparable considering its total geographical area. It is also interesting to note that exploration and exploitation of this sector can be traced back to the time of colonialism.

In terms of current realties, one can perhaps point at two main projects, namely, Bisha and Zara, to assess the impact and effectiveness of this sector so far.

Natural resources, viewed as endowments – even if finite – have considerable catalytic contributions to the country’s current and future economic development. The income gained from this sector is obviously expected to feed into a national financial basket, used for the benefit of, and to finance, other key development projects. It is for this reason that the effective utilization of this sector remains of utmost importance.

In general, however, the mineral extraction projects implemented so far cannot be viewed as yielding optimal revenues in so far as they were, and are not, fully processed in the country for critical value addition. That is to say, 80% refinement in the case of gold and bulk concentrates for copper was extracted and shipped out of the country.

The overall experience thus far has raised a series of questions: What was its contribution to financing development projects? How did it contribute to the overall national economic growth? Did it have a positive sustainable effect on the growth of the sector itself? Could we not have further processed these here? Could we not have added value in-country and sold directly to markets at higher rates? Was it cost effective (in terms of fuel, time, tires, and other wear and tear on the roads) to use trucks to haul bulk concentrate from Bisha all the way to the port in Massawa? All of this covers Bisha in particular but there is also the Zara site.   And these days, the Asmara site will be operational.

Indeed, faced with all these questions, we now find ourselves regretting some of these decisions that were taken rather hastily. Nonetheless, the experience gained and lessons learned will hopefully enable us to move ahead in a much more effective manner.

This is particularly important when considering the new project, potash, which has been touted as having the potential of lasting 60, 80, 100 years or more. Still, the lessons learned from previous experiences must offer a guide so as to not repeat similar mistakes.

Obviously, in the first place, all the key infrastructure required, such as roads, rail, harbor, energy, etc., must be adequately available. More importantly, however, and considering the fact that this project is slated to cut across generations, we must also consider all avenues of processing and value addition within country so as to ensure maximum profit. As such, all the required basic infrastructure, as well as human capital, that contribute to the establishment of an adequate processing plant in that vicinity must be put in place ahead of time.

In general, if there are ways to produce input in-house, in the country, then we must absolutely do so. For example, there was no reason for us to import lime when it could have been easily produced domestically. Similarly, cement is another resource that needs to be expanded. The current factory in Gedem, for example, sits on a reserve of about 18-20 million tons of the required raw material. Tio, on the other hand, has an estimated 100 million tons of the required raw material. Other raw materials that are worth exploring include marble, oil, gas, ore, with Asmara and its environs sitting on 20 million tons of ore. This is based on relatively shallow digs of about 12 meters conducted during the Italian colonization period using basic technologies. One can only imagine what the results would be for deeper digs with newer technologies at this time. The rough estimate of that time was 200 million tons.

All this is to say that Eritrea sits on one of the largest endowments of natural resources – from the most basic of resources, which includes marble and other construction materials, and cement, to highly valued metals, including gold, copper, potash, etc. To utilize these endowments effectively, we must expand and develop our manpower and capacity skills, as well as our processing abilities. We should certainly avoid the desire for short term gains and expedient results. Furthermore, we ought to have a comprehensive and refined strategy that covers all areas in this important sector.  This strategy must take into consideration the potential, cumulative benefits for future generations. The ultimate aim in exploiting these resources should be geared towards full processing and refinement within the country.

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