BERBERA, SOMALILAND - A plan to upgrade Somaliland's port of Berbera promises to transform the ancient town, almost tripling the port’s size and boosting the region's economy, backers say. But critics contend the plan was pushed through without sufficient explanation and could adversely affect traditional fishing.
The port — a hub for fishermen and traders for millennia — is located in the breakaway republic of Somaliland, on the Gulf of Aden near the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
In August, Somaliland's parliament approved a draft agreement with DP World — a port company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — to take on a $442 million upgrade to the port. The final deal is still being negotiated.
The project would take 30 years. If realized, it would transform Berbera into a major player among lucrative Red Sea shipping routes. The physical port would nearly triple in size. Modernization could increase Berbera's yearly capacity from just 60,000 containers to more than 1 million.
Somaliland Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire said Berbera's strategically located port currently "is not equipped to serve beyond Somaliland." An upgrade would give competition to nearby Djibouti and serve "East Africa as a whole."
The upgrade would expand the port's reach to not only "Somaliland and Somalia but also Ethiopia and South Sudan and the rest of the landlocked African countries in the hinterland," he said.
The current port is aging, built over 30 years ago with assistance from Russia and the United States. Visitors today can see the hulls of sunken ships littering Berbera's harbor rather than large container ships moving in and out.
Planned improvements could create thousands of jobs, Shire said.
Mohamed Said, a fisherman who has worked in Berbera for 18 years, was enthusiastic about the proposed changes.
"We are expecting that the fishermen can get a lot of opportunities, such as improvement of infrastructure, how the fishermen can catch the fish, training, equipment, boats – all those things from DP World,” he said.
Concerns about jobs
But there are doubts, as well.
Yusuf Abdillahi Gulled, country director for Fair Fishing, an organization that promotes small fishermen, expressed concern about potential job losses.
"They say there are many people working in jetty now, in the harbor and the big harbor, and if DP World come it might computerize, it might change the way people are working now so many people may lose their jobs,” he said.
Abdi Risak, a youth representative for an opposition party in Berbera, said the ruling party pushed through the deal without consulting locals or explaining its scope and investment.
He said the public was not told what the deal was about, what the investment is about. He said that if there had been openness and people were told about the investment, it might have been supported but, since no one has told them about it, they are against the deal.
Resolving these tensions may decide whether the new port deal succeeds or sinks.