There are very intersting news coming out of Somalia, brought to light because of the recent focus on the indemic piracy going on there. Apparently, for decades now, a manmade environmental catastrophe has occuring in Somalia, which has in part contributed to the rise of these new pirates. According to the UN special envoy for Somalia, varioius international companies, mostly European, have taken advantage of Somalia's anarchic state to pay off the warlords and be able to illegally dump unlimited amounts of toxic waste, including radioactive materials, into the waters off the Somali coast, resulting in widespread devastating contamination of the fisheries and of the human settlemeents near shore, not to mention contaminating the world ocean with hundreds of tons of radiactive materials, resulting in untold long term devastation.
Follow me after the flip, to find out more and also for very sad pirate jokes.
Capitalism is great. It encourages innovation and creativity around the world. For example, here's a classic business school problem. Your European safe and clean nuclear power plant generates tons of radioactive waste a year. Naturally safely and legally disposing of it in Western Europe is next to impossible given all the regulatory steps and costs it would entail. Disposing of it in Eastern Europe, where the people are less white and the officials can be paid off, costs about $1,000 per ton, which works. However, further board meetings take place and somebody with an MBA proposes cutting these unnecessary costs as a way to make the company more profitable. Isn't there another place, a place so lawless and corrupt that you can pay off the local strongmen with peanuts and dump your waste without taking any safety precautions whatsoever? Well, you don’t even have to think long, as your dump ship exits the civilized zone of the Mediterreanean through the Suez Canal, it passes by the wasteland of Somalia, a failed state with decades of anarchy on its resume. So the international companies went to whoever in Somalia was in a position to negotiate, the warlords and the various weak provisional governments, and cut a much better deal. Instead of $1,000, you can dump toxic waste into Somali waters for only $2.50 a ton! And since there is a raging insurgency, there are no Western reporters there to expose the situation, and international agencies will have a very hard time getting investigators on the ground. All the corporate people clap in unison, and then do the business school mind trick of effortless erasing any consideration of possible illegality and long term consequences of their actions from their minds and going to play golf. Once one company did this with success, dozens of others followed suit, so as not to be undercut. Asians, Europeans, Americans, all the people who have been fortunate enough to discover the magical business school trick.
Large scale dumping began in the early 1990s, after the US lost interest in the country after the botched Black Hawk Down intervention. In 1992, a contract to secure the dumping of toxic waste was made by Swiss and Italian shipping firms Achair Partners and Progresso, with Nur Elmi Osman, a former official appointed to the government of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, one of many militia leaders involved in the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia's former president.
Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director, told Al Jazeera that he discovered the firms were set up as fictitious companies by larger industrial firms to dispose of hazardous waste.
"At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some sort of organized crime group, possibly working with these industrial firms," he said.
"It was very shady, and quite underground, and I would agree with Ould-Abdallah’s claims that it is still going on... Unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to investigate this fully."
The Italian mafia controls an estimated 30 per cent of Italy's waste disposal companies, including those that deal with toxic waste.
In 1998, Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian weekly magazine, claimed that although most of the waste-dumping took place after the start of the civil war in 1991, the activity actually began as early as 1989 under the Barre government.
Passing western warships headed toward the Persian Gulf or the Suez Canal paid no attention to the commercial activity, knowing that the market works best when governments don't ask questions. For two decades this worked perfectly. A few hundred Somali villagers got sick, lost their lifestock, or had deformed babies, but who are they going to complain to? Probably Allah, and he's on the Terror Watch List and can't even get on an airplane. Then, the great Tsunami of 2005 came and swept tons of this stuff on shore.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.
Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman, told al Jazeera that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a "frightening activity" that has been going on for more than decade.
"And the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes – you name it."
Nuttall also said that since the containers came ashore, hundreds of residents have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.
"We [the UNEP] had planned to do a proper, in-depth scientific assessment on the magnitude of the problem. But because of the high levels of insecurity onshore and off the Somali coast, we are unable to carry out an accurate assessment of the extent of the problem," he said.
However, Ould-Abdallah, the UN special envoy to Somalia, claims the practice still continues.
"What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean," he said.
Naturally, this is entirely illegal. Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which came into force in 1992.
EU member states, as well as 168 other countries have also signed the agreement. The convention prohibits waste trade between countries that have signed the convention, as well as countries that have not signed the accord unless a bilateral agreement had been negotiated. It also prohibits the shipping of hazardous waste to a war zone.
So this all came to light in 2005, and what happened after that? Nothing at all. A UN report was prepared and buried under dozens of other UN reports chronicling the devastation of humanity.
Simultaneously with this environmental catastrophe, other corporations realized that since Somalia is not a functioning state, they won't be in a position to enforce their commercial fishing rights in their territorial waters. Massive commercial fishing fleets, paying no fees and only small bribes, quickly overfished Somali fish stocks and left the fishermen, now hairless and glowing, without a food source. At the same time bands of gunmen roam the countryside, confiscating food, raping women, imposing Sharia Islamic law, detaining people who practice Sharia, executing people who don't practice Sharia. And overhead, American Predator drones circle, looking for high value al Qaeda targets to launch a missile at, or more precisely, to launch a missile at a village in which they suspect an al Qaeda figure to be.
But, as Obama says, in the darkest times, it is important not to despair and to believe in yourself. You are the one you have been waiting for. As the Somali fishermen, militiamen, gunmen, and starving tribesmen lay on shore or roamed the land with guns, slowly dying from the malnutrition combined with radiation sickness, they noticed that offshore, a much different and better world was unfolding. Luxury liners, oil carrying supertankers, commercial cargo vessels of all sorts, were all bypassing Somalia on their way to or from the Suez Canal, which is accessible on its eastern side through the Red Sea, which feeds out into the Gulf of Aden, which is where Somalia is. And none of these boats are guarded in any way, since for centuries now the maritime empires, first Britain and then the US, have guaranteed the safety and freedom of the seas.
It's a classic situation, on the one hand you have a bunch of starving people with guns. And on the other, you have very wealthy people without guns going right past them. Any system tends to equilibrium, and so, before too long, a balance was struck whereby the hungry guys got something to eat, while the wealthy guys got guns pointed in their face. It started slowly at first, catching a few luxury yachts and holding their wealthy owners for ransom. And the ransom was paid, and the US did not send its warships to control the coast. So the warlords who dominate Somalia's interior realized that this was a cash cow, and large scale piracy began, so that now, we have several ships being seized a month, and not just in the Gulf of Aden, but in the open waters of the Indian Ocean, like the Saudi supertanker that got taken last month.
This seizure has probably marked the pinnacle of the pirate activities, as it seems that this time the pirates have bitten off more than they can chew. They are having trouble negotiating a ransom, have to use super shady intermediaries, and now there are loud calls for a US led blockade of the Somali coast, or a convoy system for ships sailing in the danger zone. Also, al Shahab, the Islamist group that is currently the dominant military force in Somalia, has warned the pirates that they are not allowed to target Islamic shipping, though it seems they’ll let the pirates off with a warning this time. Still, for the first time in decades, there is economic activity in the fishing villages of Somalia, the pirates are throwing around their ransom money, there is much merriment and wenches everywhere. Naturally, most of the pirates are not from the fishing villages, they are the nameless men with guns who plague this lawless world. But they are pirates, so it's cool! And it will continue to be cool until they start executing their hostages. Obviously, the pirates are not interested in chasing toxic dumping vessels. While they might use this as an excuse for their actions, they are not really local and are driven by profit, much like the corporations doing the dumping.
But the end is near. The shipping costs have gone up dramatically as a result of the pirate attacks. Many members of Intertanko - which as a group owns 75% of the world's tanker fleet - are now considering re-routing their ships around South Africa to avoid pirates, and that this would raise costs by 30%. And that's a lot of money. With this much on the line, we can expect the US to finally get moving. It is interesting that the US has not acted up to now, even in the case of the seized Ukrainian vessel filled with weapons, which now sits off the Somali coast, waiting for its ransom, ringed by US warships doing nothing.
In fact, the only thing the US has done so far is pay the Somali pirates $7 million to inspect the Iranian ship which they are holding. To speculate on why the US is not doing more is to get into conspiracy theories, but even were they to act, force alone is not the answer. Somalia has known nothing but force for decades now, and it's clearly not helping.
And who is responsible for the situation? As the UN envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, told al Jazeera:
I must stress however, that no government has endorsed this act, and that private companies and individuals acting alone are responsible
Anytime a diplomat stresses something, it's generally advisable to presume the opposite to be true. What governments are involved? And what role is Disney playing in all this? We may never know the answers to these burning questions, but since the US is the de facto maritime police of the world, which has for decades stood by tolerating both the piracy and the dumping, some of the blame can be safely placed at its feet. All we can hope for is that this rampant piracy will force the powers that be to exercise control over what is happening in Somali waters, both the hijackings and the toxic dumping. Let's hope that as this story gets more play in the media, the Obama Administration might see fit to detour some of the many many battle groups which are raising tension in the Persian Gulf to the Somali coastline, to control both the piracy and the dumping activities.