Radiation threat follows tsunami

By Bokongo Bosire in Nairobi

March 5, 2005


HIGHLY toxic waste washed on to Somalia's coastline by the December tsumani has spawned illnesses with symptoms like radioactive exposure in villagers along the shore of the shattered African nation.

Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the UN Environment Program (UNEP), said: "There are indications that hazardous waste, radioactive waste, chemical waste and other substances (in containers), which have been dumped on the Somali coastline, were damaged by the tsunami."

A UNEP report said: "Somalia is one of the Least Developed Countries that received countless shipments of illegal nuclear and toxic waste dumped along the coastline."

UN officials said the deadly waves, which originated off Indonesia on December 26, possibly damaged the containers in northern Somalia so the waste spilled. It then spread further - either by wind or humans - causing diseases.

Mr Nuttall said United Nations agencies working in northern Somalia, a country that has been wracked by anarchy since 1991 and has no any reliable health monitoring equipment, had reported symptoms of diseases.

There were reports from villagers of a wide range of medical problems, including acute respiratory infections, dry heavy coughing, mouth bleeds, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties, he said. 

UN officials familiar with the situation said the diseases had the same symptoms as radiation sickness.

"UNEP is in discussions with (the Somali) Government with a view to sending a full assessment mission to the country so that we can work out the magnitude of the problem," Mr Nuttall said in Nairobi.

Somali authorities reported that nearly 300 people - a figure the humanitarian agencies dispute - were killed and thousands displaced by the tsunami waves, which were sparked by an undersea quake.

Along other Indian Ocean shorelines, up to 290,000 people died.

In the late 1980s, European firms dumped wastes such as uranium, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other waste in northern Somalia, but the trend picked up rapidly after the violent ousting of strongman Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, according to the United Nations.

Somalia watchers have said that the country's warlords controlling fiefdoms alomg the shoreline were paid hefty amounts of cash to allow waste to be dumped there.

"Most of the waste was simply dumped on the beaches in containers and disposable leaking barrels, which ranged from small to big tanks without regard to the health of the local population and environmentally devastating impacts," the UNEP report said.

It warned that radioactive contamination could cause "serious long-term effects on human health as well as severe impacts on groundwater, soil, agriculture and fisheries for many years".