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Wasting away: Somalia's ecosystem in the dumps as toxic waste poisons life

Tuesday April 18, 2023
By Austin Bodetti


Teetering on the edge, Somalians brace for disaster. Faced with famine and increased militant activity, Somalia's multi-faceted crisis has been compounded by a worsening toxic waste problem that is poisoning wildlife and the human population.

As Somalia’s battle against the militant group al-Shabaab grinds on, the country continues to deal with a range of other challenges.

The most immediate has come in the form of a potential famine, with the World Food Program, an arm of the United Nations, warning that “6.5 million people face acute food insecurity between April and June 2023.”

Meanwhile, the environmental issues that have battered Somalia for decades are receiving little attention. They include illegal dumping, a crime that the country, distracted by political violence, struggles to police.

On February 27, the Somali National News Agency, part of Somalia’s state media, reported that investigators from the country’s environmental ministry were conducting an inspection of metal barrels suspected of containing toxic waste.

Locals discovered the barrels on a beach in Somalia’s Middle Shabelle administration region along the country’s southern coast, but the report provided few clues as to who dumped the barrels or what chemicals they contained.

History suggests that a foreign business or other non-Somali entity was trying to offload toxic waste to avoid complying with expensive environmental regulations. As far back as the 1980s, European firms were disposing of cadmium, lead, mercury, uranium, and other dangerous by-products of heavy industry off Somali waters.

The practice only accelerated at the 1991 outset of Somalia’s on-again-off-again civil war, which limited Somali security forces’ ability to investigate and deter illegal dumping. That logic fuelled decades of environmental crime.

Illegal dumping caught the renewed attention of Somalis and the international community in 2004 when an Indian Ocean tsunami pushed containers of hazardous waste onto Somali shores.

The U.N. Environment Program noted that some of the containers appeared to hold “radioactive waste” and that residents of the affected areas were suffering from “mouth bleeds, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties.”

A 2005 U.N. fact-finding mission proved inconclusive. The task force, deployed to Somalia’s north-eastern Puntland state, reported that it “found no traces of toxic waste from the samples taken in the three coastal locations and tested in Nairobi.”

However, this conclusion hardly absolved practitioners of illegal dumping, as the fact-finding mission also called “for a more comprehensive assessment of the natural environment of Somalia, which would include further investigations of alleged toxic waste sites on land and dumping of toxic waste at sea.”

As the years passed, the controversies surrounding illegal dumping in Somalia multiplied and grew more bizarre. In 2009, allegations circulated that Somali militias had long allowed the ‘Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most powerful mafias, to use Somalia as a dumping ground for toxic waste in exchange for the provision of weapons. The country’s notorious pirates also began citing illegal dumping as one of the justifications for their attacks on foreign ships.

Illegal dumping in Somalia shows few signs of slowing down. In 2021, Muridi Aba Sheikh, a fisherman based in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, told the Somali website Horn Observer that he had seen “unscrupulous” foreign fishing vessels disposing of “waste they transport from other places without being noticed.” Horn Observer blamed the trend on the “lack of protective laws” while Abdirahman Hassan Omar, a Somali environmental lawyer, told the outlet that “it will be difficult to stop them when they get unlimited access through government contracts.”

Similar concerns about Somalia’s environmental regulations have persisted for decades. A 2005 U.N. report highlighted “the lack of any reference to a national water act or adhesion to the Contracting Parties to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972 (the London Convention), the latter being especially relevant to the alleged dumping of toxic and hazardous materials in Somalia during 2004 and 2005.”

Even if Somalia’s central government determines that it has the bandwidth to launch simultaneous campaigns against terrorism, famine, and environmental crime, the authorities’ reach remains limited.

Al-Shabaab controls key swathes of the country, and other regions harbor separatist ambitions, foremost among them Somaliland. Factionalism within the central government may further hinder the implementation of a nationwide environmental policy, undermining its response to the discovery of the suspected toxic waste in Middle Shabelle.

Despite these obstacles, officials in Mogadishu have potential allies. Legislators in Somaliland, which operates its own environmental ministry, have passed an environmental law punishing illegal dumping with up to two years in prison.

European authorities may also assist in a crackdown on the practice. In 2011, a member of the European Parliament pressed the European Commission to outline its plans to combat illegal dumping in Somalia.

Geopolitical circumstances have divided Somalia’s central government, Somaliland’s leaders, and the powerbrokers of the European Union, but a joint campaign against illegal dumping may serve to bridge that gap.

Officials in Mogadishu, Somaliland, and Brussels all have an interest in fighting a trend that undermines the European Union’s environmental laws while exacerbating marine pollution in Somalia. Whether a shared commitment to environmental protection will unite these actors, however, depends on their willingness to overlook their political differences.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired


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