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Yet more fun with failed states

Know what’s great about failed states? They can’t police their borders, which makes them great places to smuggle drugs or weapons. International criminals and terrorists can hide in them and no one will find them. Their banks can launder money, hiding all sorts of illegal transactions. They can sell you blank passports, enabling you to be whoever you want to be. And, if you’re really creative, you can dump nuclear and medical waste off their shores and no one will stop you.

That’s the latest challenge Africa’s pluckiest failed state has to deal with – toxic waste from barrels broken up by the December 26th tsunami washing up on the shores of northern Somalia. According to a report by the UN’s Environment Programme, international firms have been taking advantage of the chaos in Somalia to turn its territorial waters into a toxic waste dumping ground. (SomaliaWatch reported the dumping of nuclear waste in Somali territorial waters as early as August 1999.)

According to Nick Nuttal of UNEP, the tsunami battered open some of these barrels and has scattered toxic materials into the ocean, where it is now sweeping up onto the shores of northern Somalia, where villagers in tsunami-affected villages are reporting bleeding mouth sores, skin conditions and severe respiratory conditions, possibly as a result of eating contaminated fish.

Just what sort of chemicals are we talking about, Mr. Nuttal?

“We are talking about radioactive chemicals, heavy metals, medical waste.. you name it.”

According to Nuttal, the wastes have been dumped by European companies, who are able to dispose of the material in Somali waters for $2.50 a ton, as opposed to $250 a ton to dispose of the wastes legally, in Europe.

Who’s going to take action to clean up this illegally dumped material and protect the villagers affected by it. Most likely, no one. The East Africa Standard, writing about the release of toxic materials, points out that UN teams wrote a desk report about the impact of the tsunami on Somalia because UNEP teams were not able to visit Somalia, due to security restrictions. The elected Somali government remains based in Kenya, because it is still too unsafe for them to return to Mogadishu.

BBC has an excellent resource page on Somalia, and is following this and other stories under a series titled “Somalia: Emerging from Ruins?”. Tragically, BBC producer Kate Peyton was killed in Mogadishu on February 10th, where she was reporting on efforts by the government in exile to return to Somalia.

Added: The Guardian has an excellent Q&A that answers the question, “Why is the government of Somalia based in Nairobi, Kenya?”