Dallol of the Afar Regional State is considered to be the hottest inhabited place on earth with temperature regularly soaring above 37 degrees Celsius and reaching a searing 50 degrees.
The ground offers little relief from the hot air and sun’s rays: Dallol sits on an active volcano which is called Erta Ale. Standing in place for even a few minutes can damage, ones shoes. Dallol is home to the the Afar people, who call the town “the Gateway to Hell”. Being one of the hottest places on the planet, the sight of people toiling in the harsh environment to win their daily bread is intriguing. In an extremely dangerous weather condition communities in Afdera, 850 km north-east of Addis Ababa in the Afar Regional State, heroically deal with the harsh environment to provide the entire nation with one of the most essential minerals — salt, reports Henok Reta.
For tourists from different parts of the world, visiting the volcanic Afar region, which lies below sea level and is known for its intense heat and picturesque salt flats, is a sight for sore eyes. Many visitors have managed to overcome the unendurable temperature to see with their own eyes one of nature’s beauties. Some have even compared the remote area to “the surface of Mars.” However, for Tahir Wuhabrebi, a 35-year-old Afar-born resident of the area, the beautiful salt deposits are his bread and butter. He grapples with the tools he was given to test iodine concentration in the salt. It used to be a very simple task to take out the salt from the sea nearby and scatter it on the dry land for evaporation and finally pack to load upon the trucks. Now, it has become a national duty for them to mix the salt with iodine.
Salt-Iodization machine at work
Studies carried out by EDHS in 2005 indicate that 83 percent of school children tested positive for iodine deficiency nationwide. And, the iodine deficiency continues to be one of the major threats for citizens, according to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). “It has become a very sensitive issue to deal with as the country faces so many problems caused by iodine deficiency,” Alem Hadera, country manager of GAIN, says. Globally, iodine deficiency is one of the major health problems and the deficiency affects about two billion people. Iodine is abundantly found near sea coasts and is rare in the earth’s crust.
The crux of the problem for Ethiopia lies in the producers who are reluctant to carry out the process of ingestion of iodine to avoid more expenses.
For many households in Ethiopia, salt is used for its taste rather than its nutritional value. Almost all dishes in Ethiopian kitchens are prepared using salts. But many cooks have less knowledge in detecting iodized salt from a non-iodized one or are less concerned to check whether their salt is iodized, according to surveys.
Ever since the country stopped importing salt from the ports in Eritrea following the border war that broke out between the two countries at the beginning of the millennium, many households rely on the salt that arrives from Afdera. Indeed, some families have been purchasing iodized and labeled salt whereas the majority depend on the salt from Afdera, which gained its name from the saline rift valley lake located more than 100 meters below sea level.
Afdera supplies more than 90 percent of the national demand for table salt. More than 360,000 Mt of edible salt is produced every year off the shore of the beautiful and resourceful lake of Afdera. The rest is supplied by the two more sites in Somali and Dobi in Afar Regional states. However, the small village has barely any infrastructure.
“This is the place where almost all the 90 million people of the country get salt for their food. But the place is neglected by the government in terms of infrastructure,” Tahir says. Tahir feels less encouraged towards the national duty of salt iodization unless electricity, road and water arrive at their door steps.
“We are thankful for the machines that simplified our burden of iodization process but I certainly doubt that they will work for long relying on a diesel generator in a hot place like this,” he complains referring to iodization machines supplied to the producers by Irish aid through GAIN.
Men working at the shore of the salt lake
The small machines have now been introduced in the area. The machines have the capacity to mix 100 quintals of salt per hour with iodine . In the past,producers use laborious wasteful methods of iodizing salt such as using pierced cans to spray the salt hill with iodine—a highly volatile substance.
A national survey carried out by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute last year showed a dramatic rise of salt iodization by 88 percent, Alem told The Reporter. Even then, just 23 percent of the iodization met the standard, he said. A council of Ministers Regulation (No. 204/2011) issued to provide for Salt Iodization bans the process, import, store, transport, distribution or sale of non-iodized salt for human consumption.
According to Yehulu-Deneke Alemneh, general director of the Food Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority (FMHCA), the attitude of salt producers and distributors should be changed to lift up the 28 percent of iodized salt coverage of the country. The authority is heading to the implementation of the country’s salt iodization regulation proclamation which was endorsed in 2012.
According to the African Health Observatory (AHO), iodine deficiency disorders are causing physical and mental growth retardation. For, instance, in Ethiopia, only twenty percent of households used iodized salt in 2005, an Ethiopian demographic and health survey reveals. In cognizance of the existing problems, the Federal Ministry of Health launched the National Nutrition Programme during the Health Sector Development Programme III. This introduced several innovative approaches, including screening children aged 6-59 months and pregnant and lactating women for malnutrition. Vitamin A supplementation and deworming campaigns were also integrated into regular routine services. And one of the strategies is for community-based nutrition, iodization of salt and distribution of iron folates
“It was a huge success indeed but a big task ahead to maintain the quality and the minimum standard of iodine in the salt,” Alem stated.
Yet, the problem seems to be vast as some of the producers seem to be reluctant to invest their money in the iodization process. “Once we provided them the chemicals and the machines the rest should be their responsibility to take over,” Alem told The Reporter.
It, however, seems to be less understood by the majority of the producers who have been making larger margins of profit with less amount of investment. The Kadaba, an association formed by some 500 producers to produce salt with a better quality and capacity, is now making a stride towards setting up an industry. Not all members are confident though as some fear it would cost them more than they used to expend while working independently. But support, such as machineries, come when individual producers come together to form associations like Kadaba. Hence, they are urged by the government to organize themselves in associations and produce on a large scale.
“There will be no hope for them in the future in such fragmented farming like production system unless they transition to large scale industrialization through central iodization facilities (CIF’s),” Alem argues.
“We are working with various government institutions in order to ensure the quality of salt,” Kebede Shitaye, national nutrition program officer at the Ministry of Health, says.
On the other hand, the Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise (ECSE) is announcing that a standard has been issued for salt as a food item so that the production in Afdera will underway quality test, according to Teshale Belihu, general manager of ECSE. The government may be forced to import salt if the standards set are not met, Teshale added.
Salt hill ready to undergo iodine treatment
Afdera may find it difficult to stay as the “salt mine” of the country despite having one of the purest sodium chloride that could meet export standard.
Most of the producers who have been in Afdera for decades believe they can make a difference if their demand is met as soon as possible.
“We are committed to serve the country and our people. We know we should maintain the quality of our product but we need support,” Nuru Alihola, producer, says. And this is the message they want to convey to the government through members of parliament – Kassahun Janka and Meseret Jemaneh – who were on a field visit last Saturday to the area on the occasion of handing over the iodization machineries to associations. Having listened to the demands of the producers the standing committee members of social affairs assured them they would forward their issue to parliament.
Mussa Ahmed, Afdera Woreda Administrator , acknowledges initiations by the government to build the infrastructure of the region but requests for quick implementation and further projects.
“We have a huge resource here but it has never seen sufficient support,” he says. Because of the aridity and the harshness of the environment investors appear to be less interested in the region, according to Gezahagn Zewdu, representative of the regional mine and energy bureau.
Nevertheless, the bureau has issued 1,500 investment licenses in salt production at Afdera so far. “We are also seeing a number of investors coming to the region to invest in potash,” he told The Reporter.
Afar, a region that spearheads the country’s hominid findings with the discoveries of Lucy, a 3.5 million year fossil, and several skeletal remnants is one of the key tourist destinations in the country and in Africa as well. Although it features many other minerals such as sulphur, gold and gypsum and bentonite, salt remains the key component.
In spite of all the resources the region is endowed with, a lot is to be desired in terms of infrastructure development. Many insist the government should give due attention to the development of infrastructure to best utilize its resources. Many indeed would like to see Afdera the ultimate salt mine of the country anda site for internationally labeled table salt source for export.
“‘Two ways to get salt are digging the ground as in Dobi in Afar and God-usbo in Somali Region or from water bodies such as sea and lakes. Afdera in this regard has relatively bigger potential to cover salt requirements for domestic needs if current production system transition to industrial scale with potential for even export market’ Alem concludes.