“If there are rumors, we should go check them out!” declared Finnish MP Pekka Haavisto about barrels of toxic waste that supposedly washed ashore in Somalia
after the 2004 tsunami. I spoke with Haavisto in Helsinki last month as he took a break from marathon budget meetings.
“I think it is possible to send an international scientific assessment team in to take samples and find out whether there are environmental contamination and health threats. Residents of these communities, including the pirate villages, want to know if they are being poisoned, just like any other community would.”
In April this year, Haavisto flew commercial to Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed (who narrowly escaped assasination today), and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. In August Haavisto visited Puntland state to speak with President Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud and other government representatives.
“Parliamentarian” is only one of Haavisto’s jobs. He also works as Finland’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa and, after playing a similar role within the EU as special representative for Sudan. From 1999-2005, he headed the UN Environment Programme’s Disaster and Conflicts Programme (then called the Post-Conflict Assessment Unit), which specializes in objective scientific environmental assessments in war-torn countries.
Haavisto is an enthusiastic advocate for environmental missions that may improve the desperate conditions resulting from violent conflicts. “We should be talking with all the factions,” he told me, to investigate the toxic waste charges. Such a thorough and objective assessment could provide a rare and potentially valuable avenue for addressing underlying suspicions and grievances some Somalis hold against those whom they claim dump waste off shore and overfish their waters.
Using environmental dialogue to build confidence is a top objective of Haavisto’s former colleagues at UNEP—and an idea that is gaining more traction within the wider UN family. For example, UNEP is now working directly with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to provide “green advisors” to their blue helmets, lowering their environmental bootprints and establishing green, self-sufficient bases, including one in Somalia for AU troops.
Assessing the tsunami’s possible toxic legacy in Somalia may provide an avenue for dialogue by addressing first-order concerns for local populations. The dialogue could ultimately support action on front-burner problems outside Somalia, such as piracy, poverty, internal conflict, and terrorism.
Photo: IDPs outside Mogadishu, courtesy of Flickr user Abdurrahman Warsameh and ISN Security Watch.