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Placing the Environment at the Forefront of the National Agenda

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Last week, World Environment Day (WED) was proudly commemorated in countries around the world. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a specialized agency of the United Nations and the leading global authority on the environment, WED is held annually on 5 June since 1973. (It was established at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, an important gathering which put sustainable development firmly on the global agenda.)

Steadily, WED has grown and evolved into becoming the largest global platform for environmental public outreach and it provides a key means for raising vital awareness of the many and multifaceted problems that face our environment, such as air pollution, plastic pollution, the illegal trade in wildlife, sustainable consumption, sea-level increase, and food security, among others. Recognized and celebrated by millions of people in communities across the world, the special occasion also helps to drive positive change in consumption patterns and in national and international environmental policy.

Shining light on the global situation

Today, concern and awareness about local and global environmental issues remain as pertinent as ever. At present, the world is confronted by the daunting planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Credible past estimates have shown that as a global community, we are utilizing the equivalent of around 1.6 Earths to maintain our current way of life – although, of course, there are numerous and vast discrepancies between, and even within, countries. Quite simply, the world’s ecosystems cannot keep up with our ever-growing demands.

Furthermore, research conducted by UNEP and other respected entities indicates that despite a brief fall in global carbon dioxide emissions several years ago (directly linked to reductions in human activities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic), the world today remains on course for a potentially catastrophic temperature rise this century and remains woefully offtrack in meeting the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050. As well, according to the World Health Organization, about one-quarter of all global deaths, roughly 13.7 million deaths a year, are linked to the environment due to risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure, while according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, up to 40 percent of the planet’s land is degraded, directly affecting half of the world’s population. Notably, it is believed that the number and duration of droughts has increased by approximately 29 per cent since 2000. Without urgent action, debilitating droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050.

Looking at Eritrea

In Eritrea, concern and regard for the natural environment run deep and the national commitment to establishing a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment are longstanding. Eritrea’s National Charter, adopted in 1994 in the historic city of Nakfa, states that, “We are committed to economic growth, but in conjunction with social justice and the protection of the natural environment.” The Charter also declares that one of the country’s objectives is to gradually, “[B]uild a strong national economy, based on appropriate agricultural, industrial, commercial and other services, which satisfies the needs of our people, develops our own resources, [and] enables responsible utilization of the natural environment and resources.”

The country’s commitment is also powerfully reflected in the fact that it has signed or is party to numerous environment-, climate change-, and biodiversity-related international agreements and instruments, including, among others, the: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Convention on Biological Diversity; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa; World Heritage Convention; Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity; Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Paris Agreement; Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol; Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Agreement on Port State Measures.

In addition to the above, a range of protective and restorative environmental activities, along with climate change mitigation and adaptation actions, continue to be conducted nationwide. (It is worth noting here that many of Eritrea’s initiatives and actions are actually decades old, predating the country’s independence and originally being promoted by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the struggle for freedom.)

For instance, clean, renewable energy continues to be prioritized, while tangible steps are being taken to improve energy efficiency and promote clean alternatives in transport, manufacturing, and household consumption.

One unique and relatively successful national intervention has been the introduction of improved traditional stoves, locally known as “Adhanet”, which are energy efficient (decreasing consumption by an estimated 50 percent), minimize deforestation, and reduce safety and health hazards. Designed by the Ministry of Energy and Mines and distributed by the Ministry of Agriculture, more than 170,000 of these units have been installed in households and communities nationwide since 1998.

As well, Eritrea is currently in the early stages of developing a 30 MW solar PV plant in the town of Dekemhare. The project, which will be the country’s first large-scale solar plant, includes a 15 MW/30 MWh battery energy storage system, a 33/66 kilovolt (kV) substation, and a 66 kV transmission line connected to the existing transmission line between East Asmara and Dekemhare, located about 1 km from the project site.

 

The solar PV plant and battery backup system is expected to increase Eritrea’s national generation capacity and grid energy to 185 as  part and parcel of the projected 360 MW aggregate output in the immediate first phase. As well, the plant will increase the renewable energy share within the country’ grid energy mix to approximately 23 percent from 3 percent, greatly strengthen its resilience by reducing reliance on biomass, decrease national dependency on costly imported fossil fuels, and reduce harmful emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation.

Notably, through the enactment of government directives, large enclosures have been established and several priority areas for protection have been delineated and mapped. (The latter include large areas in Semienawi and Debubawi Keih Bahri, Buri-Irori-Hawakil, the Berasole estuary, and the Gash-Setit Elephant Sanctuary.) Furthermore, decades ago, the government enacted a national ban on plastic bags, outlawing the import, production, sale, or distribution of plastic bags, while it has also banned the hunting and trapping of wild animals. Additionally, the cutting of live trees is legally prohibited and actively enforced, while afforestation and reforestation programs, which involve the active participation of government ministries and institutions, local communities, student and youth groups, and other entities, have been frequently and regularly conducted in all regions of the country.

As a key component of these initiatives, more than 45 million tree seedlings of different types have been planted since 2006, with a high survival rate. Alongside these strong efforts, thousands of kilometers of terraces have been constructed and reinforced, while numerous water diversion schemes have been developed in all six of the country’s administrative regions, particularly within rural areas.

Together, these initiatives have significantly helped to combat land degradation, tangibly contributed to the restoration of ecologically damaged forests and other areas, and maximized land use within extremely difficult and considerably challenging terrain. They have also played a tremendously positive role in reducing soil erosion and increasing soil quality, while also tangibly helping to promote water conservation and combat the widespread destruction associated with flooding.

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