Environmental degradation in Somalia
The last two decades of the 20th century have witnessed a burgeoning global environmental awakening to the kind of doom and gloom that we are told will affect us all from holes in the ozone layer to extinction of rain forests. Politicians have embraced environmental slogans, wearing them like emblems to woo the cynical public. The recent post-mortem on the Rio Summit of 1992 bore limp testimony to the broken pledges of governments who failed to deliver the most basic measures to salve environmental decline.
But while governments soft pedal ideas, it is the non-governmental organizations who are stealing the march on political initiatives and rhetoric, fighting hands-on environmental degradation. Even in places where governments have collapsed due to civil strife, like Somalia and Afghanistan, it is the non-governmental organizations who are stealing the show.
Somali environmentalists, sickened by the plight of their country whose land was and is being laid to a barren waste, set up Somalias very first environmental organization. In 1996, a group of local intellectuals formed the Somali Environmental Protection and Anti-Desertification Organization (SEPADO). Although resources are scarce, SEPADO is already making an inordinately big difference in monitoring and safeguarding Somalias environment.
Throughout history, a secure environment has been essential to humankind for social and economic development, stability of cultures and, indeed, civilization itself. Humans, of late, have forgotten this basic rule. Wrong utilization of the earth and its natural resources has resulted in a threat to our existence.
Somalia, an east African country that has seen self-destruction through civil wars, has also allowed its environment to degrade to a level that cannot be described in words.
One unfortunate anguish that will face Somalis long after a solution is found for the current political crisis is the damage that has been done to the environment of the nation. Due to a lack of central government to establish and maintain control, together with a lack of environmental awareness, people have turned to all kinds of illegal and damaging activities. These include, for example, the burning of trees and forests for charcoal, the poaching of wild animals for leather, and the export of all kinds of animals for foreign currency.
Some of the current environmental problems that Somalia faces are: the use of contaminated water which contributes to health problems; deforestation; overgrazing; soil erosion; desertification; merciless poaching of wildlife; recurring droughts; and frequent dust storms over the northern and eastern plains in summer. Somalia is also one of the uppermost nations listed as a site for the dumping of hazardous nuclear and chemical waste by industrialized nations.
About 60 per cent of Somalias population are nomads and their dependence on pasture land is obvious. Most Somalis depend on livestock for their livelihoods and for food. Livestock depends on plants. If the current rate of desertification is not stopped, plants, livestock and humans will die together and there will be little life left on the land for many generations to come.
The Somali society is basically under the governance of the traditional leaders whose main duties are to overlook the well-being of the community. Social problems, land or property disputes and so on are all handled by these elders.
As the environment crisis started, these people were alarmed by the speed of destruction to the forest and started forming follow-up groups for assessing the damage and organized meetings and heated debates. The level of understanding was there but, due to limited knowledge and experience of problems of such a magnitude and lack of available funds, they were frustrated even though they clearly saw the devastation that had befallen their environment.
When SEPADO was formed and forwarded its agenda and action plan, they welcomed us open-heartedly and pointed out that this could be a good opportunity to carry out campaigns to raise environmental knowledge and confront the destruction that both humans and animals would face if desertification is not stopped.
SEPADO took advantage of the peoples good perspectives on environmental awareness and led a campaign to enhance this awareness in a mass mobilization through every possible means such as conducting public orientation on the issue of environment and distributing T-shirts carrying paintings stating Environmental protection is the responsibility of every society member. Stickers were also distributed in the Somali language saying Protect the environment, My property doesnt take part in the destruction of our environment, He who destructs the environment destructs the human life, Dont change your beautiful forest into a desert for a handfull of dollars.
We recommended boycotting and isolating any person whose vehicle was found to be transporting charcoal and depriving him of any other transportation dealings.
Hundreds of square kilometres are cleared every month by the charcoal industry. This results in hundreds of square kilometres of burned land that no longer hosts any life. Huge trees, over 70 and 100 years old, are burned down to produce charcoal. In the same process plants, pasture and soil are also burned to nothing.
The export of charcoal and forage to foreign countries should be immediately stopped. The rate is alarming at which trees are felled for the manufacture of charcoal currently almost 30,000 tonnes of charcoal is being exported from Somalia each month.
The cutting down of the Acacia Busei tree, which is an important tree in the Somali landscape, is resulting in a devastated land. In one type of charcoal oven, between two and three hundred Acacia Busei trees are burnt at one time.
The process of making charcoal has many destructive effects on the land. For example:
The different means of livelihood amongst Somalis leads to different forms of abuse of the land. In the middle and northern regions, as well as eastern regions like Mudug, Todheer, Bari and Sanaag, livestock such as camel, sheep and cattle are mainly herded. In the southern part of the country farming and cultivation are the main means of livelihood, together with some livestock herding.
In regions where cultivation is the main occupation, the cutting of small trees and the clearing of large trees for land utilization are the major environmental threats. In regions where livestock herding is the main occupation, major threats are through the cutting of trees for livestock sheltering, overpopulation of livestock, and water scarcity and water pollution.
It has been said that the regions of cultivation have a better and more stable environment than those regions where only livestock is herded. This was perhaps true prior to the collapse of Somalias central government. But now the country is wide open to all sorts of damaging trades. In some cases, the export trades in charcoal and wildlife are managed by warlords and their associates as a means to earn foreign currency, enabling them to continue the civil war.
Acacia forest once covered vast tracts of Somalia but they have been cut down in increasing numbers by those ignorant of the environmental cost or by those too greedy to even care. Once the trees have been cut they are packed together and burnt to make charcoal for export. Without tree or shrub cover, the soil is soon depleted and soil forming becomes retarded. The result is desertification. Once rich pastoral land is turned into a sterile environment which is unable to support vegetation or livestock for many years.
Apart from charcoal production which is causing irreversible desertification, one common and noticeable environmental problem is the vast use of nylon bags. These bags are used to carry the leaves of Qat, a narcotic-like green leaf which most Somali males buy and chew. The bags are carelessly thrown away. This causes severe problems to vegetation. We have observed many plants which have died due to these nylon bags getting wrapped in their branches and around their roots. With nylon bags entwined, the plants cannot get adequate air, water and sun to sustain them.
The increasing scarcity and widespread misuse of water poses a serious and growing threat to sustainable development throughout the world. In Somalia, water was never adequate, even when the central government was functioning. The Somali people have frequently experienced severe drought. This scarcity of water has resulted in a devastating and appalling situation for both people and livestock. Most of the water wells have dried up and the boreholes water rigs are out of order.
Somalias central and regional authorities used to take care of all major water points in the north and central regions prior to the civil war. Throughout the civil strife, these vital water points have not received appropriate maintenance to provide the necessary water for drinking and cultivation purposes. The nomadic population, their livestock and all the wildlife are forced to share the meagre water resource left available.
We, in SEPADO, have seen the sad sight of thousands of livestock queuing up for water at water points and boreholes, yet having to stand back and give way to the continuous needs and demands of the local inhabitants, with the result that thousands of livestock die of thirst.
There is also a great risk from water getting contaminated. Nomads use pesticides for getting rid of insects and parasites from their livestock. These animals use the same water source as the people and so the water becomes contaminated, putting at risk the lives of nomads, livestock and wildlife.
Just recently, some of the field workers in SEPADO reported the hideous incident of a father and three of his children who died after eating meat from livestock that had been contaminated by some kind of pesticide.
Incidents have been reported of animals bleeding from their noses. Water samples from several well sites have indicated pesticide contamination. SEPADO emphasizes the need for nomads to be made aware of the dangers certain chemicals can pose.
As we approach the next millennium, we need to review our outlook on nature. Humankind is a part of nature and our sustenance depends on a subtle balance within it. Somalis must come up with better ways of containing the alarming rate of desertification and other environmental catastrophes that are occurring in their country.
In addition to livestock overpopulation, there is a dangerous and damaging trade which has begun of late, degrading the land even further. This is the cutting of graze and other pasture for export to foreign countries, who cannot grow enough graze, for hard currency. The cutting of pasture is also undertaken so as to feed livestock which are exported. This merciless destruction of pasture plants and grasses adds to the environmental stress of an already suffering land.
Once one environmental problem is created, it invariably leads to another one. Clearing forest for charcoal, cutting graze, trucks travelling back and forth collecting charcoal and graze for transport to ports all these contribute to land degradation. As a result, pasture land turns to dry river beds and gullies.
An unaccountable number of trucks laden with grass arrive at the port cities every day carrying thousands of tonnes of graze, leaving behind them little or no food for livestock, people and wildlife. This, at times, causes open confrontation between the greedy traders and the angry nomads.
The destruction is not confined to land. In the last few years it has become common to see thousands of tons of fish and other sea animals washed ashore dead. Members of SEPADO have observed this unfortunate tragedy, the cause of which is as yet unknown. Perhaps the death of this sea-life is caused by pollution from the huge oil tankers that pass through the Arabian Sea as they wash their oil containers, releasing polluted sea water and chemicals.
Many countries have devised policies to deal with the unexpected event of an oil spill. Yet Somalia, with the second longest coastal area in all Africa, has not even a basic strategy to deal with this. It just sits back and waits for an environmental hazard to occur.
The fall of Somalias central government saw also the fall of the municipal authorities. The health and sanitation situation in all of Somalias cities is now the lowest in the world. With municipal authorities no longer in existence, sanitation facilities are not being maintained, and so it is common to see people littering in the cities and their surrounding suburbs.
Proper sanitation procedures and immediate attention to this health danger is the need of the hour.
Although in its infancy, SEPADO does employ all the strategies of more seasoned organizations. A monthly newsletter, Voice SEPADO (CODKA SEPADO), is distributed to villagers with health tips and cartoons depicting charcoal traders as ogres. The message is practical and even nomads are contributing enviro-missives to the newsletter. T-shirts and car bumper stickers with environmental slogans are other simple products. The many activities that SEPADO initiates in striving to find organized methods for fighting Somalias desertification and other environmental problems are described in detail on the SEPADO Web site.
SEPADOs objectives can be summarized as below.
As a newly established non-governmental organization, without the backing and support of our government (as no form of government exists in Somalia), we are extremely limited in the activities we can undertake, although there are many issues which need addressing. The SEPADO team is, however, dedicated and hard working. We are currently pursuing the following activities.
If work is not carried out soon to educate the Somali people on the sustainable use of natural resources, and an in-depth inventory made on environmental hazards, we fear that desertification and pollution will increase at an extremely disturbing rate. This will only add to the threat to the lives of many for present and future generations.
We are trying to focus our attentions on identifying, and resurrecting, sustainable small-scale industries and activities that will ultimately woo charcoal labourers to more productive and less hazardous livelihoods.
The Somali people and many international organizations have spent much time as well as precious resources on coping with Somalias current political turmoil and its civil wars, while, throughout, the environment has been left to suffer. SEPADO, with the help of all nature-loving people throughout the world, hopes to do a great deal to change the ongoing environmental tragedy in Somalia.
SEPADO calls for all Somalis and all other nature-loving people to immediately end the ongoing environmental devastation in Somalia. We look forward, with hope, for assistance in securing a better environment in our country.
SEPADO has established its main office in the Badhan district of Sanaag. It is planning to open offices in the Bosasso and Las Anod districts of the Bari and Sool regions. Due to the lack of a proper and reliable communication infrastructure in Somalia, we maintain our communications office in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.
With human and animal lives at stake in Somalia, SEPADO is here to stay and will continue the struggle, undaunted by the task in its war-torn homeland.
Feysal Ahmed Yusuf, SEPADO, PO Box 27750, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Fax: 971-187-02215243. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
Further information regarding SEPARDO's activities can be found on their Web site. This issue of Tiempo also features a listing of other sites covering drylands and desertification. Feysal Ahmed Yusuf has provided information to accompany this article concerning the devastating floods that hit Somalia in late 1997.