By Richard Abdy in Nairobi [ Richard.Abdy @ ethicalcorp.com ]
The activities of Swiss and Italian waste disposal companies are in the spotlight following revelations that they may have been taking advantage of the anarchy in Somalia to dump toxic waste Green campaigners, the United Nations and human rights activists in Africa and Europe are ratcheting up pressure for an investigation of allegations that Swiss and Italian waste disposal companies are dumping toxic waste in war-torn Somalia.
Although the concerns were raised in 1992, when Greenpeace named the Italian and Swiss companies allegedly involved in illegal trafficking of toxic waste to Somalia, they have assumed new urgency following the 2004 tsunami. Reports from the semi-autonomous Puntland region of north-eastern Somalia say hundreds of rusting containers washed ashore after the tsunami struck on 26 December, leaking toxic waste.
Reports from Haafun, a tiny island that bore the full brunt of the tsunami, and the central region of Mudug say hundreds of people are falling ill with respiratory infections, skin infections and mouth and abdominal bleeding.
Medical experts in Kenya believe these health problems could be linked to exposure to radioactive waste.
The toxic waste trade
Experts say thousands of tonnes of illegal nuclear and chemical waste have been dumped along the 2,500-mile Somali coastline. The trade is thought to date back to the years of the Siyad Barre dictatorship but has picked up pace after the collapse of his regime and through the years of anarchy and civil war.
In 1997 and 1998, the Italian newspaper Famiglia Cristiana, which jointly investigated the allegations with the Italian branch of Greenpeace, published a series of articles detailing the extent of alleged illegal dumping by Swiss firm Achair Partners and Italian waste broker Progresso.
UN experts say Somalia’s long coastline, lack of an effective central government, low public awareness, the absence of a navy or a coastguard, and large number of potential dumping sites make Somalia a uniquely cheap and attractive dumping ground for unscrupulous companies.
A UN report estimates that it costs as little as $2.50 to process one tonne of hazardous waste in Africa as opposed to $250 per tonne in Europe.
Nick Nuttal of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi says Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste since the early 1990s and through the civil war.
“European companies found it very cheap to get rid of waste there … There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead. There are heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is industrial waste, hospital waste, chemical waste – you name it.”
Legal and ethical questions
A UN environmental assessment report on Somalia early this year warned of the consequences of the flow of hazardous waste to the war-shattered nation, saying it raises legal and moral questions.
The report says: “The issue of dumping in Somalia is contentious as it raises both legal and moral questions. First, there is a violation of international treaties. Second, it is ethically questionable to negotiate a hazardous waste disposal contract with a country in the midst of a protracted civil war.
“The current situation along the Somali coastline poses a very serious environmental hazard, not only in Somalia but also in the eastern Africa sub-region.”
Members of the fledgling Somali government-in-exile based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, are appealing for an international investigation into the illegal trade.
Somalia's environment minister Mohammed Osman Maye early March called on the UN to set up a team to investigate the reports of hazardous wastes dumped on the country's shores, and the health problems in coastal areas.
More than 100 MPs have also petitioned the president of the transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf, to lobby the international community to launch a clean-up campaign and help the affected communities.
Civil society groups have expressed concern, with a prominent Somali musician, Abdi Ali Ba’lwaal, living in exile in Kenya, calling the practice a “crime against humanity” and urging European governments to put the corporations involved on trial.
“Our people have been decimated by years of civil war, drought and famine and those who have survived are now being poisoned slowly by the toxic waste dumped on our coast by foreign vessels. If this is not a crime against humanity, what is?” Ba’lwaal said to Ethical Corporation.
Ba'lwaal urged European states to put the companies behind this trade on the dock.
Environmentalists too are calling for more radical steps to stop the illegal waste disposal trade that targets hapless African states. They say regulating the trade is not enough, because some African states that are recipients of the waste are often too poor and lack the capacity to tackle any medical and environmental emergencies that may occur as a result of toxic waste dumping.
Many NGO critics, such as Roberto Ferrigno of Greenpeace Italy, says the Somali toxic waste export scandal underlines the failure of the 1989 Basel Convention to control the waste trade. They want to see a total ban on hazardous waste exports to developing countries, which could take a while yet.
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