As Somalia Sinks, Neighbors Face a Fight to Stay AfloatMay 14, 2010 By Schuyler Nullthe UN’s embattled envoy to the country, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, warned the Security Council that if the global community “did not take the right action in Somalia now, the situation will, sooner or later, force us to act and at a much higher price.”
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also issued strong warnings this week. Deputy High Commissioner Alexander Aleinikoff said in Geneva, “The displacement crisis is worsening with the deterioration of the situation inside Somalia and we need to prepare fast for new and possibly large-scale displacement.”
But the danger is not limited to Somalia. The war-torn country’s cascading set of problems – criminal, health, humanitarian, food, and environmental – threaten to spill over into neighboring countries.
A Horrendous Humanitarian Crisis
The UN- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) controls only parts of Mogadishu and small portions of central Somalia, while insurgent group Al Shabab controls nearly the entire south. The northern area is divided into semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland, which also fall outside of the transitional government’s control.
But the civil war is only one part of what Ould-Abdallah called a “horrendous” humanitarian crisis.
According to the UN, 3.2 million Somalis rely on foreign assistance for food – 43 percent of the population – and 1.4 million have been internally displaced by war. Another UN-backed study finds that approximately 50 percent of women and 60 percent of children under five are anemic. Most distressing, the UN Security Council reported in March that up to half of all food aid sent to Somalia is diverted from people in need by militants and corrupt officials, including UN and government employees.
Because of the country’s large youth bulge – 45 percent of Somalia’s population is under the age of 15 – food and health conditions are expected to get much worse before they get better. In the 2009 Failed States Index, Somalia ranks as the least stable state in the world and, along with Zimbabwe, has the highest demographic pressures.
Islamic Militants and the Battle for the High Seas
Yet the West continues to focus on the sensational pirate attacks on Somalia’s coast. The root cause of these attacks is not simply lawlessness say Somali officials, instead, they began partly as desperate attempts to stop foreign commercial fleets from depleting Somalia’s tuna-rich, lawless shores. A 2006 High Seas Task Force reported that at any given time, “some 700 foreign-owned vessels are engaged in unlicensed and unregulated fishing in Somali waters, exploiting high value species such as tuna, shark, lobster and deep-water shrimp.”
The transitional government opposes the fishermen-turned-pirates, but can do little to stop them. Al Shabab has thus far allowed pirates to operate freely in their territory. Their tacit approval may be tied to reports that the group has received portions of ransoms in the past.
Another hardline Islamist group, Hizbul Islam, recently took over the pirate safe haven of Haradhere, allegedly in response to local pleas for better security, but the move may simply have been part of an ongoing struggle with Al Shabab for control of pirate ransoms and port taxes – one of the few sectors of the economy that has remained lucrative.
“I can say to you, they are not different from pirates — they also want money,” Yusuf Mohamed Siad, defense minister with Somalia’s TFG, told Time Magazine.
A Toxic Threat
Initially the pirates claimed one of their goals was to ward off “mysterious European ships” that were allegedly dumping barrels of toxic waste offshore. UN envoy Ould-Abdallah told Johann Hari of The Independent in 2009 that “somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” After the 2005 tsunami, “hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died,” Hari reports.
Finnish Minister of Parliament Pekka Haavisto, speaking to ECSP last year, urged UN investigation of the claims. “If there are rumors, we should go check them out,” said the former head of the UN Environment Program’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit:
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.
To date, there has been no action to address these claims.
Drought, Deforestation, and Migration
While foreign entities may have been exploiting Somalia’s oceans, the climate has played havoc with the rest of the country. Reuters and IRIN report that the worst drought in a decade has stricken some parts of the interior, while others parts of the country face heavy flooding from rainfall further upstream in Ethiopia.
Land management has also broken down. A 2006 Academy for Peace and Development study estimated that the province of Somaliland alone consumes up 2.5 million trees each year for charcoal, which is used as a cheaper alternative to gas for cooking and heating. A 2004 Somaliland ministry study on charcoal called the issue of deforestation for charcoal production “the most critical issue that might lead to a national environmental disaster.”
West of Mogadishu, Al Shabab has begun playing the role of environmental steward, instituting a strict ban on all tree-cutting – a remarkable decree from a group best known for their brutal application of Sharia law rather than sound governance.
The result of this turmoil is an ever-increasing flow of displaced people – nearly 170,000 alone so far this year, according to the Washington Post – driven by war, poverty, and environmental problems. The burden is beginning to weigh on Somalia’s neighbors, says the UNHCR.
The Neighborhood Effect
One of the largest flows of displaced Somalis is into the Arabian peninsula country of Yemen – itself a failing state, with 3.4 million in need of food aid, 35 percent unemployment, a massive youth bulge, dwindling water and oil resources, and a burgeoning Al Qaeda presence.
In testimony on Yemen earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman said that the country’s demographics were simply unsustainable:
Water resources are fast being depleted. With over half of its people living in poverty and the population growing at an unsustainable 3.2 percent per year, economic conditions threaten to worsen and further tax the government’s already limited capacity to ensure basic levels of support and opportunity for its citizens.
Other neighboring countries face similar crises of drought, food shortage, and overpopulation – Ethiopia has 12 million short of food, Kenya, 3.5 million, says Reuters. UNHCR reports that in Djibouti, a common first choice for fleeing Somalis, the number of new arrivals has more than doubled since last year, and the country’s main refugee camp is facing a serious water crisis.
A Case Study in Collapse
The ballooning crises of Somalia encompass a worst-case scenario for the intersection of environmental, demographic, and conventional security concerns. Civil war, rapid population growth, drought, and resource depletion have not only contributed to the complete collapse of a sovereign state, but could also lead to similar problems for Somalia’s neighbors – threatening a domino effect of destabilization that no military force alone will be able to prevent.
Speaking at a naval conference in Abu Dhabi this week, Australian Vice Admiral Russell Crane told ASD News that, “The symptoms (piracy) we’re seeing now off Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, are clearly an outcome of what’s going on on the ground there. As sailors, we’re really just treating the symptoms.”
Sources: Academy for Peace and Development, AP, ASD News, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, High Seas Task Force, Independent, IRIN, New York Times, Population Action, Population Reference Bureau, Reuters, Telegraph, Time, UN, US State Department, War is Boring, Washington Post.
Photo Credits: “Don’t Swim in Somalia (It’s Toxic)” courtesy of Flickr user craynol and “Somalia map states regions districts” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.