The Life Spill in East Africa

The Life Spill in East Africa

Nairobi's famous cartoonist, Gado.
I have little doubt that the Gulf Oil Spill may become the most catastrophic environmental disaster of my life. I hope it will focus your attitudes towards the Third World.

Caution: I don’t expect to get oil on my hands, or for my livelihood or retirement to be profoundly changed. Nevertheless, I know it will impact me in more serious ways than any other environmental disaster in my life time.

I expect this is true of most Americans. Those who live in the Gulf region will obviously be much more greatly impacted than I will, or those who farm sheep in Montana. But no other disaster – the Oakland earthquake, the Valdez spill, Mt. St.-Helens, Katrina, the Easter Sunday twisters, the Yosemite fires – will have as serious or lasting an impact.

It will likely have an impact on how I vote. It may even have an impact on how I shave or use lights at night.

This is major. Then, why, is there so little – if any interest at all, by East Africans?

The news has been duly reported. But there’s been no local comment, and not a single blog in a blogsphere that is hypercharged and overly active.

But there has been one, very important, cartoon. See above.

I think East Africans see America’s horror at the gulf oil spill as globally hypocritical and markedly irrelevant to their way of life.

Both these views are essential for us to understand. In no way am I suggesting that we should not be horrified by the spill; or that we shouldn’t change our ways because of if. But just for a moment, let’s see what this personal horror reveals of us to the Third World.

There are so many estimates flowing around right now as to the economic impact of the spill that it’s too early to turn the disaster into numbers. And I know the numbers will be huge. But you don’t have to be a statistician to make valuable comparisons with numbers in East African which are already known.

The gulf oil spill disaster will be hard pressed to reach the impact on Americans that the 1991 civil war in Somalia and subsequent rape and destruction of its Red Sea coast has had on Somalians.

Remember that the 1991 civil war in Somalia was a direct result of the end of the Cold War and the abandoning of East African states as proxies by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. We as Americans are responsible for that.

(Most of the details which follow were first published by Andrew Mwangura last week in Pambazuka.)

More than 200,000 fishermen have lost their livelihoods on the Somali coast, and the biomass of the world’s fifth most diverse fishery is being destroyed by illegal fishing by First World corporations and by illegal nuclear and toxic waste dumping in Somali waters.

The 200,000 fishermen were the bulwark of more than a thousand Somali coastal villages, which have been either eliminated or transformed into pirate villages increasing allied with al-Qaeda.

UN documents quoted by Mwangura report the first evidence of people dying from toxic waste dumping was in the village of Eel-Dheer in central Somalia when dark blue long barrels of a toxic material washed ashore in April, 1992, leaking an oily liquid. That was less than a year after the U.S. abandoned Somali following Blackhawk Down. Within a few years Eel-Dheer no longer existed. Everyone was dead or had left.

The UN analysis of the “oily liquid” confirmed that it was nuclear waste. Several other incidents have happened since, the latest in 2005.

In mid 1998 a 45km long and 5-7km wide oblong of dead fish washed ashore just south of Mogadishu to Warsheekh. Less spectacular but regular dead fish “oblongs” appear across the Somali, Eritrea and northern Kenyan coasts.

Further out to sea, but still well within the 12-mile international limit that theoretically still belongs to Somalia, ECOTERRA describes how First World countries are raping with impunity the rich biodiversity of the Somali Red Sea. Constrained by their own countries’ environmental laws, and even more often breaking international laws in an area unlikely to be well monitored, these vessels are decimating the Red Sea of tuna, mackerel, swordfish, grouper, emperor, snapper, shark, shrimp, rock-lobster, dolphins, sea turtles and sea-cucumbers. They have diminished the extraordinary population of dugong to near extinction.

According to ECOTERRA, the fishing vessels which have been systematically raping the Somali waters since 1991 (in order of greatest number) are from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India.

Except for India, these are all first world nations.

According to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF), there were over 800 such fishing vessels in Somali waters at a single time in 2005. That year, High Seas estimated that more than US$450 million in fish value was taken from Somalia.

Surveys commissioned by the UN prior to 1991 in a larger report trying to document a peaceful Somali economy estimated there were 200,000 tons of sustainable fish per year that could be harvested from Somali waters. High Seas estimates that 300,000 tons is now being harvested annually.

(Hugh Seas, ECOTERRA and Mwangura make compelling arguments that current Somali piracy is essentially the former Somali fishing industry forced into attempts to control its rightful grounds.)

This is a lot easier to explain but harder to fully comprehend. Simply refer back to Gado’s cartoon above. Unlike us well off Americans, a person’s security in East Africa hardly exists day-to-day. Third World people are beset by so many problems that another natural disaster is simply not unusual.

They make do after earthquakes, revolutions and droughts, often in unseemly if creative ways. Kenya and Uganda have recently announced very promising oil and gas discoveries that the Chinese are developing at a speed unimaginable.

Japan has announced a $1.2 billion dollar project to build an oil pipeline from the southern Sudan to the yet-to-be built port (by the Chinese) on Kenya’s island of Lamu. (Or in place of the island, probably.) The risk for an accident or environmental catastrophe is much greater than for the more than 4000 oil rigs currently sitting in the Gulf of Mexico.

But it doesn’t matter. The cost-benefit ratio isn’t great enough to stop Third World peoples from doing anything they can to make tomorrow better than today. Cost-benefit is calculated in hours and days, not years or decades. It reflects an individual’s life, not the life of our planet.

Until the vast majority of the world, its poor peoples, see a future worth saving, the planet is doomed. And right now, their future doesn’t look very promising.

Watching the brown pelicans dying on a CNN short, I found myself viscerally effected by this spill in a way I hadn’t expected. I know that it will effect my life. So now take that feeling and try to imagine an East African who carries that feeling with him every moment of every day.