Jetsam off Hobyo locals say is proof of toxic dumping
Somalia’s pirate gangs portray themselves as a “local coastguard”, defending Somalia from unscrupulous hordes of foreign vessels taking advantage of the chaos and lack of an effective government to use the Horn of Africa nation’s waters as a free dump for toxic waste and a ripe ground for illegal fishing.
While most observers acknowledge such events were one of the sparks for piracy in the 90s, few now buy the justification for what has become a multi-million dollar industry targeting high-value merchant vessels travelling far outside Somalia’s territorial waters.
There has been historical and academic claims that indicate that both practices took place, but the big question is whether it is still ongoing, as pirates, local fishermen and officials from both the Transitional Federal Government and Puntland claim. In the first of two reports, Somalia Report looks at the toxic dumping claims.
There is no doubt that toxic dumping took place in the past, gaining pace after the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, which sparked a chaotic period where the warlords who ruled the roost were happy to deal with unscrupulous organizations wanting to dispose of unsavory cargoes in exchange for weapons.
Greenpeace in 1997 published research that showed Swiss and Italian companies were working as brokers for companies taking hazardous waste from Europe to dump off Somalia and other African countries.
According to a 2010 report by the campaigning group, there were 94 attempted/actual cases of hazardous waste exports to Africa between 1998 and 1994, involving over 10 million tons of residues, including radioactive material.
Shady groups from Italy, linked with Somalia due to its role as the colonial ruler of Italian Somaliland before independence, were particularly prominent. The report says that in the mid to late-nineties, an Italian mafia group known as Ndrangheta worked in cahoots with the Somali government and warlords to arrange for waste to be either dumped in coastal waters or buried along the coastline.
According to the report, Ezio Scaglione (honorary consul of Somalia) told an Italian probe prompted by Greenpeace’s research that Giancarlo Marocchino, an Italian businessman resident in Karan, said he could get rid of radioactive waste by burying it in containers used to strengthen the pier in Eel Ma’aan, a small port north of Mogadishu.
Excerpts from an intercepted telephone conversation showed Faduma Aidid, an official Somali representative to Italy, discussing other dumping arrangements.
“The Garowe-Bosaso road will be used to bury the waste,” he said. “They have poisoned the whole territory ... The toxic waste produced by Italian and European (sic) industries gets loaded onto boats in the port of Trieste. They get distributed in the countries. It is toxic waste and uranium. It destroys everything.”
Writing for The Ecologist in 2009, journalist Chris Milton said the Italian probe found that 35 million tons of waste had been exported to Somalia for $6.6 billion.
Investigating the allegations proved deadly for some. Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi was shot dead in Mogadishu in 1994, reportedly because she had seen evidence the Ndrangheta were working with warlords to dump toxic waste in exchange for weapons.
The waste buried on land was just part on the picture, and evidence of sea-based dumping was literally pitched up in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. Dozens of containers were washed up on the shores of Somalia, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in a 2005 report, said that waste washed up on the shores caused serious health problems:
“The impact of the tsunami stirred up hazardous waste deposits on the beaches around North Hobyo (South Mudug) and Warsheik (North of Benadir). Contamination from the waste deposits has thus caused health and environmental problems to the surrounding local fishing communities including contamination of groundwater. Many people in these towns have complained of unusual health problems as a result of the tsunami winds blowing towards inland villages. The health problems include acute respiratory infections, dry heavy coughing and mouth bleeding, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin chemical reactions, and sudden death after inhaling toxic materials.”
In addition, the report said: “The economic potential of Somalia’s marine resources has been seriously affected and threatened, whilst dumping of toxic and harmful waste is rampant in the sea, on the shores and in the hinterland.”
The bulk of the support for toxic dumping in Somalia exists in the Italian press, using Somalis, Italian mafia snitches and local stories as sources. What is missing is any significant attempt to locate, measure, test or scientifically back up these stories. Local uncorroborated tales, photos of rusted containers and a listing of previous articles allow journalists and NGO's to bend the story either way. A story about the lack of toxic dumping has little commercial value or resonance. An investigative story about western nations destroying the Somali economy have much greater impact even if the underlying facts are missing.
As recently as 2008, the then-UN special envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, said he had "reliable information" that European and Asian companies were dumping waste. However, he offered no evidence to back up his statement.
While hard proof of historical abuse exists, the situation today is murkier, as the security situation means few groups actually gain access to take water samples or investigate suspect containers.
Coastal communities say that while toxic dumping decreased for a while, the arrival of foreign navies in 2008 to tackle piracy set the process in motion again. Many fishermen accuse NATO and the European Union of using their navies to protect vessels engaged in dumping from pirates.
“After the tsunami that enveloped the coast of Somalia, we have registered a significant drop in our catches,” Bashir Yussuf Barre, spokesman for the fishermen of Banadir, told Somalia Report.
“Two things are possible here: first there has been this issue of toxic waste disposal into our waters, and we believe as fishermen this is the biggest contributor to the drop in our stocks. Some western multinational companies are using our waters to dump some dangerous and poisonous toxic waste, thus reducing fishing activities. The other issue is that there is a growing concern all over the world that sea products are decreasing due to adverse climatic conditions.”
Another fisherman, based in Hobyo, said he had seen evidence with his own eyes.
“A few weeks ago, three big unidentified containers washed onto our seashore, the next day we saw a number of dead fish along the shore,” Mohamed Hirre told Somalia Report. “That means that illegal dumping is continuing unabated in Somalia ... we will only witness the reduction of our fish stocks in the next few years if the world doesn’t protect our sea.”
Alessandro Gianni, Campaign Director in Greenpeace’s Italian office, acknowledges they have no programs in Somalia due to security, and thus it is hard to prove anything in the current climate. However, he points to signs in Italy that efforts are still ongoing to use Somalia as a rubbish dump.
“We know that last summer the Italian Customs blocked some containers loaded with 45 tons of car scraps in the harbour of Gioia Tauro,” he told Somalia Report. “According to a press release issued by the customs authorities, the waste – declared as automotive ‘spare parts’ - was bound to Somalia.”
Ecoterra Intl, a marine monitoring group that also tracks piracy, says it has evidence that foreign vessels are still using Somalia’s un-policed waters to dump a variety of nasty goods. But the group, which says it is working on court cases, refused to reveal any of its proof when contacted by Somalia Report.
The case against
As for the foreign navies, they dismiss out of hand allegations that they are shielding nefarious dumping vessels, or that any wrongdoing is taking place anywhere in the areas they patrol.
“We have seen absolutely no evidence of such activity at all. There has been some of this many years ago, but not any more in the last years,” Commodore Michiel B Hijmans, former commander of NATO’s anti-piracy mission Ocean Shield, told Somalia Report before he handed over his responsibilities to his successor in June.
“I am afraid it is indeed just an excuse used to misinform, and by that to mislead, the Somali people and also some in the international community,” he added.
Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP, said that a multi-agency team took water samples after the tsunami, but was unable to turn up any evidence of significant water pollution. He said his feeling was that toxic dumping was a “historical phenomenon”. However, he did admit that the chaotic nature of the situation in Somali meant that no proper studies had been done, and said nobody had “ever gotten to the bottom of these allegations”.
“This is a concern that dates back over two decades and UNEP some time ago was concerned that there might be illegal hazardous waste being taken to Somalia,” he told Somalia Report. “But, we have been unable in the intervening years to follow that up, in part because of security reasons and difficulties in getting a really top scientific team in to spend what would require some time to really carry out full assessments.”
One of the cornerstone "proof" documents was a report created by Mahdi Gedi Qayad who traveled to the region in May and June of 1997, talked to local leaders, walked on the beach and wrote a simple 6 page report that found no evidence of toxic waste dumping other than the verbal testimony of the locals. The report was not released to the public but was often cited as United Nations proof of toxic dumping when in fact no proof was provided. The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami also provided more "proof" in the form of containers, debris and industrial items that were labeled as evidence of toxic dumping but again no scientific connection between toxicity and these containers were created.
Another example of a 'suspect' container
As shown by Hirre’s testimony, delivered by telephone earlier this year, reports still pop up that suspect containers have washed up, particularly around Hobyo. However, part of the problem is that local communities seem to treat any flotsam (floating wreckage of a cargo or ship) or jetsam (part of a ship or cargo thrown overboard in times of distress) that arrives on their beaches as proof of toxic dumping. At one point, Somalia Report was promised a picture of a waste container. When it arrived, it turned out to be nothing more than a navigation buoy.
Somalia Report sent a correspondent to Hobyo to look at the containers and take pictures of them. Our reporter was told there were at least five containers, but he was only able to view three during his visit due to insecurity (at one point he was kidnapped by a local militia). Each container he was shown had been there for at least two years, and Hobyo residents told him they had not seen anything new wash up since.
The containers our reporter viewed on the beaches were for the most part empty, and looked as though they had been in the water a long time before washing up. Equally, there was nothing to suggest that their contents had ever been dangerous.
We sent pictures of the containers to Glen Forbes, who served in the Royal Navy for over three decades and now runs OCEANUSLive, a site aimed at improving the safety of seamen through communication. Forbes said it was “very unlikely they would have been used for the transportation of toxic waste”.
“They appear to be jetsam (possibly flotsam),” he told Somalia Report. “They would have made very poor containers.”
However, Forbes said that the containers would need to undergo toxicology analysis to be absolutely sure of their origins.
With such a poor haul of hard evidence on show, the case for toxic dumping remaining a problem is decidedly weak, resting largely on tales passed around fishing communities. The flip side, however, is that it cannot be proven that dumping is not taking place, and it would be naive to preclude the possibility of such behavior given the number of unscrupulous corporations who have shown they will do exactly that given half a chance. However almost every general story about the birth of piracy, conditions of the coastal communities will add the effects of toxic waste dumping as a root cause of their decline. The acceptance of toxic dumping (along with the supposed former existence of a robust indigenous fishing industry) has added a false sense of moral purpose, external abuse and blurred the focus on piracy as a purely home grown criminal activity.
Greenpeace, in its 2010 report, called on the UN to carry out an independent assessment, particularly in the area of Eel Ma'aan - a demand unlikely to be met any time soon given the UN's reticence to send their staff into areas where they could be shot or kidnapped.
Until such times as the security in Somalia improves enough to allow proper research from reputable environmental groups, or a company is caught in the act of disposing of its sludge - as was the case when oil-trading company Trafigura was in 2010 found guilty of dumping hazardous waste in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, four years earlier - pirates and fishermen will continue to claim they are the victims of an international conspiracy, and their claims will be brushed off by those they accuse.
Even if hazardous waste is still being jettisoned into Somali waters, the pirates' insistence that they are defenders of the coastline is nothing more than a line to justify their money-making ventures. If they were truly serious, they would target only vessels involved in dumping and illegal fishing and share the ransom money with local communities hit by these practices. Instead, they target oil tankers and yachts and blow their ill-gotten gains on khat, prostitutes and fancy cars.
(Somalia Report journalists Muhyadin Ahmed Roble, Abdullahi Jamaa and Andrew Mwanguara contributed to this report)