European firms are being accused of dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast. This is the claim that the Somalia pirates, who are demanding an $8m ransom for the return of a Ukrainian ship, are making. The pirates say the money will go towards cleaning up the waste.
Januna Ali Jama is a spokesman for the pirates and he says
the ransom demand is a means of "reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years".
"The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas." he added.
The MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and military hardware, off Somalia's northern coast is being held for ransom.
The International Maritime Bureau states 61 attacks by pirates have been reported since the start of the year.
Money is the primary objective of the hijackings; however, claims of the continued environmental destruction off Somalia's coast have been largely ignored by the region’s maritime authorities.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia said there is "reliable information" that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline.
"I must stress however, that no government has endorsed this act, and that private companies and individuals acting alone are responsible," he said
Allegations of the dumping of toxic waste, as well as illegal fishing, have circulated since the early 1990s.
The tsunami of 2004 literally dumped evidence of such on the beaches of northern Somalia.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.
Nick Nuttall is a UNEP spokesman and has stated 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.
"Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there," he said.
"European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne.
"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."
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.
Ould-Abdallah 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.
There are apparently legal reasons for not naming the companies involved in waste dumping.The practice helps fuel the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia as companies are paying Somali government ministers to dump their waste, or to secure licenses and contracts.
"There is no government control ... and there are few people with high moral ground ... [and] yes, people in high positions are being paid off, but because of the fragility of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], some of these companies now no longer ask the authorities – they simply dump their waste and leave."
There are ethical questions to be considered because the companies are negotiating contracts with a government that is largely divided along tribal lines.
"How can you negotiate these dealings with a country at war and with a government struggling to remain relevant?"
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.
The UNEP investigated the matter at the request of the Swiss and Italian governments.
Both firms had denied entering into any agreement with militia leaders at the beginning of the Somali civil war.
"At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some sort of organised crime group, possibly working with these industrial firms," Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director 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."
"If these acts are continuing, then surely they must have been seen by someone involved in maritime operations," Abdi Ismail Samataris a professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota said.
"Is the cargo aimed at a certain destination more important than monitoring illegal activities in the region? Piracy is not the only problem for Somalia, and I think it's irresponsible on the part of the authorities to overlook this issue."
Mohammed Gure, chairman of the Somalia Concern Group, said "The Somali coastline used to sustain hundreds of thousands of people, as a source of food and livelihoods. Now much of it is almost destroyed, primarily at the hands of these so-called ministers that have sold their nation to fill their own pockets."
Ould-Abdallah said. “The intentions of these pirates are not concerned with protecting their environment. What is ultimately needed is a functioning, effective government that will get its act together and take control of its affairs."