Thursday, May 07, 2009

Eritrea: Reaping the wild wind to survive "cruellest place on earth"

A member of the ethnic Afar fishing community

The old fisherman leaned heavily on his walking stick and sighed. For the first time in 50 years, the sea, the winds and the weather in Edi village, in the Southern Red Sea Region of Eritrea – his trusted allies in making a living - are baffling him.

"It is getting hotter and hotter every year; the hot period is starting later now and we have to go deeper and deeper into the sea to find fish," he told IRIN. "The sea is everything to us – we do not understand what is happening."

Members of the ethnic Afar fishing community share a communal evening meal of ‘injera’, pancakes made of sorghum or teff, the staple cereals, topped with ‘shiro’, a chickpea stew. The Red Sea waves can be heard lapping the shore about 100 metres away as they prepare to sleep on cots under the starlit sky.

Edi, between the east coast ports of Massawa and Assab, lies on an arid strip of southern Eritrea that includes a large part of the Danakil desert, one of the hottest areas in the world. A dirt track leads through the parched landscape marked with sand dunes, salt wastelands and sacks of dried anchovies harvested by fishing communities.

Temperatures soar to 44 degrees Celsius during the day, and summer has yet to come in the beautiful coastal region edged by the emerald waters of the Red Sea. It is a harsh place, once described by the National Geographic as the "cruellest place on earth".

The Red Sea, located in an arid tropical zone, is one of the hottest bodies of seawater, with surface temperatures going up to 30 degrees Celsius. Rainfall as low as 150mm to 200mm for an entire year nourishes algal blooms along its shores, which feed small fish such as anchovies, said Isaac Habte, of the environment and sustainable development section of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

"The rainfall is growing less and less, which has affected our catch of anchovies, which has become smaller," said Omer Kassim, a fisherman in Assab, the regional capital, about 170km south of Edi.

Food insecurity

The World Bank in 2007 described Eritrea as the most food insecure country in the continent, and listed it among those worst affected by the global food and fuel crisis in 2008.

In a good harvest year, the country imports at least 40 percent of its food and all of its fuel requirements. According to the International Monetary Fund, it spent more than eight percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on these two items in 2008.

Fuel is rationed to fishermen and the coastal areas are hit by ongoing shortages. Kassim said the 300 registered fishermen with motor-powered boats could not afford fuel, despite government efforts to subsidise it. "Very few of us can actually go deeper into the sea for more fish without power."

A government scheme to provide subsidised food to fishermen going out to sea on fishing trips, which can last up to 14 days, was discontinued in November 2008.

"There is also an ice shortage and the markets around Assab are small – only about a 100 of us actually have the will to fish anymore, and we do not make any profit," Kassim said. Most fishermen sell their catch to the National Fisheries Corporation, the biggest buyer in the country, but it buys at a set rate, which is "very low".

A lack of ice to pack the fish means fishermen often sell their catch in the bigger market in Yemen, only 30km away across the Red Sea, and then shop for food, which is cheaper there.

Eritrean officials are aware of the cross-border fish trade. Ali Shifa Mahmoud, head of the ministry of fisheries office in Assab, said the government was planning to revive the subsidised food scheme for fishermen soon, and was considering increasing the buying price for fish.

Fishermen said the lack of resources prevented the community from reaching its potential - Eritrea could sustainably harvest around 70,000 metric tonnes of fish annually, but the current catch is around 13,000 tonnes, according to the government’s environment department.

"We are also looking at increasing the capacity of our cold storage facility in Assab," said Mahmoud. The region has two other cold storage facilities in Edi and neighbouring Thio village, but the plants are powered by fossil fuel which is in short supply.

Wind power

Now things are changing. Mohamed Saleh, the administrator of Berasole, a fishing village about 100km north of Assab, clutches his sarong against the gusting wind as he rushes to the end of the village, where the tall tower of a new windmill awaits a fan to be fixed at its head. Once this is done, the power generated by wind energy will electrify the village, as well as plants to desalinate water and process fish.

Saleh waits for a group of Turkish engineers and Abiy Ghebremedhin, project manager of the Eritrea Wind Energy Application pilot project, funded by the Global Environment Facility and UNDP, which will electrify seven villages in the region by the end of 2009.

Wind speeds of over seven knots are required to produce power and along Eritrea’s coast, winds reach 10 knots and more, said Ghebremedhin.

A windmill park in Assab meets 25 percent of the town's electricity requirements, said Semere Habtezion, Director of the Division of Energy in the Ministry of Mines and a former member of international scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Using wind energy to feed the Assab grid saved US$346,000 in imported fossil fuel over an eight-month period, said Habtezion, citing a study. Eritrea imports at least $100 million worth of fuel every year, which is a lot when the GDP per capita is $180 annually.

The country is still recovering from a 30-year war of independence and later border conflicts with Ethiopia; at times tension still flares. Aid workers pointed out that most of the country's investments were diverted to defence.

"One day we hope renewable energy will meet 30 percent of our country's electricity requirements," said Habtezion.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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