On December 26th 2004, tons of leaking barrels of hazardous uranium radioactive waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, chemical waste and hospital waste exposed when they were washed ashore the East African coast by an Indian Ocean Tsunami.
This event provided an explanation for the plague of respiratory infections, mouth ulcers, abdominal hemorrhages, malformed babies, unusual skin diseases and radiation sickness dogging Somali communities in Puntland.
Mysterious ships from foreign nations have for the last three decades exploited the lack of a central government in Somalia to use the coastal waters as a cheap dumping area for deadly toxic waste.
Another U.N report estimates that $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other seafood is stolen from Somalia’s coastline each year by trawlers illegally sailing the East African coast.
Angry Somali fishermen soon formed highly organized vigilante groups to patrol their waters. Some of these groups come complete with a structured naval hierarchy and a name ‘Central Region Coast Guard’.
Yet to the international community they are collectively referred to as Somali pirates.
When Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for one of the groups, demanded an $8m ransom for the return of a Ukrainian ship, in “reaction to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years”-- one couldn’t help but view the request as justifiable.
The total annual receipts from Somalia’s ‘piracy’ industry is only US $ 100 million dollars- just a third of the US $ 300 million worth of seafood that is poached by European and Asian vessels from Somali waters every year - the long-term health, social and environmental costs of dumping not factored in.
An independent Somali news-site, WardherNews, conducted a study that found 70 percent of Somalis “strongly support the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”
Yet on October 6, 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling on nations with vessels in the area to apply military force to repress the acts of ‘piracy.’
The international media demonises the ‘savagery’ of Somali pirates – a commonly sighted example of this savagery being the World Food Program vessel that was hijacked along the coast.
For two decades the pricey seafood served in the fine restaurants was looted from the Somali waters – it is hard to miss the irony when the international community suddenly becomes determined to protect vessels of food rations with military warships.
Until the root causes of piracy are addressed and the international community takes action against criminal organizations and countries involved in illegal fishing and dumping, pirates will continue to have a legitimate cause.
Decades from now, the social and environmental consequences of dumping toxic waste will continue to plague East Africans on the coast and on the hinterland. Sadly, the Somali pirates may not be an official national coastguard but given the prevailing circumstances, they are the only local force that can be relied on to protect Somali waters.
The author is US based a student, freelance writer and policy analyst.