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A Little Environmental Role Model in the Horn of Africa

by Thomas C. Mountain
July 12, 2004

A little country in the Horn of Africa may hold a major piece of the puzzle to the solution to the environmental crisis's and food security problems the world is facing.
Small, resource poor Eritrea, on the southwestern coast of the Red Sea, is the home of two cutting edge environmental developments based on the use of sea water to produce food, animal fodder and the ability to green the desert.
Using sustainable aqua culture techniques along with the often despised mangrove tree a company called Seawater Farms has developed the first commercial scale, self sufficient, non polluting production of food for humans and animals using sea water in Eritrea.
Along side the award winning Eritrean mangrove plantations developed by Dr. Gordon Sato, these cutting edge efforts could very well be the answer to problems ranging from desertification and declining fresh water resources to reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and its apparent contribution to global warming.
Seawater Farms starts with a large canal dug into the shore of the Red Sea. Leading inland, this canal feeds tanks made of brick or concrete that hold shrimp. The nutrient rich waste water from these shrimp tanks are channeled to algae ponds that support a fish called Talapia that can thrive in both salt and fresh water. The waste water from the fish ponds is routed to ponds that grow a salt water plant called salicornia that provides a nutritious vegetable described as a sort of salt water lettuce as well as fiber and protein rich seeds that produce a high quality cooking oil. The waste water from the silicornia ponds is sent to mangrove ponds that provide a home to wildlife, suck up CO2, cool off and help humidify the desert and provide fodder in the form of green forage and seeds for camels, goats and cattle. The sea water in the mangrove ponds filters through the sand and returns to the ocean as clean or cleaner than when it arrived.
All this takes place in isolation from the ocean itself, with no discharge of waste water into the Red Sea. The food used to feed the shrimp is manufactured using salicornia protein and fiber along with bone meal from the talapia. There is no need to harvest protein from the ocean to feed the shrimp and fish eliminating one of the major drains on the ocean that is presently required in commercial aqua culture operations.
One of the key ingredients to this process is the mangrove plantations. Mangrove used to be indigenous to much of the Red Sea. Unfortunately, mangrove requires nutrients not available in salt water. For mangrove to survive naturally, it requires periodic water runoff that carries the nutrients not available in sea water. To provide these nutrients, Dr. Sato has developed a safe, simple, time release method of providing the necessary nutrients by encasing the fertilizer in plastic bags with small holes punched in them and placing the bags of fertilizer directly at the base of the mangrove trees. Being that the mangrove ponds are completely isolated from the ocean, no nutrients can escape into the ocean from the ponds even if the bags were to be accidentally breached. Dr. Satošs studies show no detectable fertilizer in the waters of the mangrove ponds so the mangroves are absorbing all the nutrients directly.
With the right conditions mangroves can grow up to 10 meters tall in 5 years and provide forage, when supplemented with small amounts of urea, which is sufficient for the survival of animals such as camels, goats and cattle. Supplemented by the protein from the mangrove seeds, which when dried can be stored indefinitely, mangroves holds great potential in the field of sustainable animal husbandry.
Mangrove stalks have already launched a new furniture manufacturing business in Eritrea and they are used as construction material. Mangroves are an important habitat for many birds and other animals and are important estuaries on coastlines world wide. Mangroves grown in present day deserts could very well be the answer to global warming and desertification for they could soak up enormous amounts of CO2 as well as helping to make the climate more temperate, increase moisture levels, cloud formation and rain fall in some of the driest areas of the planet.
The fact that both of these cutting edge projects are taking place in Eritrea fits closely with the overall very pro-environmental practices of the Eritrean people and their government.
Eritrea has planted millions of trees since independence in 1991 and the army and the summer time student conservation corp program has also built thousands of miles of soil erosion prevention walls and helped terrace thousands of hectares of farm land.
One of the areas of focus in Eritrea is water conservation. Eritrea has stepped up the construction of community based micro-dams, each able to irrigate year round up to 30 hectares. Community based water conservation through micro-dams holds another piece of the puzzle in solving the growing shortage of water and food insecurity associated with drought world wide.
The pristine nature of the Eritrean coastline and the untouched fishing grounds included in Eritreašs territorial waters are the basis of the aqua culture industry. The marine environment of Eritrea is zealously protected by the Eritrean marine patrols from the rapacious fishing fleets of her neighbors. The Dahlak Archipelago, covering several thousand square kilometers is one of the last pristine tropical island reef complexšs in the world. This environmental treasure is in good hands with the Eritrean government putting into place long term environmental master plans after a long period of input in seminars held internationally.
Just how amazing all these accomplishments are becomes apparent when considering all the disasters, both man made and natural, that have befallen Eritrea since independence in 1991. Due to drought and the deliberate deforestation carried out as a part of the genocidal policies of the Ethiopian occupation army during Eritreašs thirty year armed struggle for independence, the Eritrean people were 80% dependent on foreign food aid to survive at independence in 1991. By the time the Ethiopians renewed their attempts to recolonize Eritrea in 1998, Eritrea was 80% self sufficient in food, and developing the fastest growing economy in Africa.
In June of 2000, the Ethiopian army, funded by western aid, was able to break through the Eritrean defenses and invade almost half of Eritrea. Nearly half of the Eritrean people were displaced from their homes as the Ethiopians carried out a scorched earth policy that included the destruction of the entire infrastructure they were able to capture, the destruction of 75% of Eritrea's agriculture, and the near destruction of Eritrea itself. Only some of the most desperate fighting since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980šs stemmed the invasion and drove the Ethiopians back to positions closer to Eritreašs borders. On top of this, the Ethiopians left millions of land mines in some of Eritreašs most productive agricultural lands.
After bouncing back from this disaster, Eritrea was hit with the worst drought in memory in 2002-2003, with the harvest in the entire country failing due to drought.
Each crisis brought with it a stronger commitment by the Eritrean people to continue to build their new society. Defense and food security must come first, but still, experimental programs were supported and continue to grow. The environment has been the focus of much of the drive towards self sufficiency and sustainability that marks over 40 years of the most determined Eritrean nationalism. Eritreans may be poor, hungry even, at times, but they will ŗnever kneel down˛. More power to them for they know that they must nurture the environment for the future of their children and their country, and do everything possible to prepare for the worst, even if it means going without much of what we in the west take for granted.
Its about time that Eritrea is recognized for the cutting edge contributions to solving some of the most pressing problems the world is facing that are taking place in this little unknown country so removed from the mainstream.
A good place to start finding out more about Eritrea and the programs she supports is at, or click on the following links;