By Dr. Shariff Osman, PhD
During the former successive Somali governments have managed the rivers between 1960 and 1969, with utmost treatment in terms of water sharing management, water quality control and sanitation, barrage equipment repairs and flood-control systems rehabilitation, among other things. However, after the collapse of the Somali state, all services, as mentioned above, have stopped, equipment was looted, and whatever heavy-duty equipment abandoned by the looters was tarnished by corrosion and decay. After decades of neglect, the rivers are still suffering from the same conditions of neglect, mistreatment, and disrepair. Even worse, the Ministry of Environment is nowhere to advocate about the current appalling river-water conditions, let alone establishing policies that safeguard the condition of the water environment.
Shebelle River pollution crises
Rivers became a household garbage disposal site, where the water became contaminated while people still drink from it. Besides, raw sewage is being discharged into the river while children swim in the contaminated water. Riverbank towns of Beletweyn, Afgoye, and Bulo-burte, which lay along the banks of Shebelle River, are the worst abusers of the river environment, using their river as household and hospital waste disposal.
Categories of pollution
There are three different areas that pollution is threatening the rivers, humans, livestock and the environments surrounding it, which demands immediate intervention. These are mainly water and vegetation.
- Water pollution
Water is highly polluted and contaminated due to sewage discharge and garbage disposal. This is specifically dangerous when river water decreases and becomes slow-moving or stagnant. That is when water becomes scarce, and river-dependent communities drink from it, even though foulness and discoloration of the water are visible.
- Soil and vegetation
Soil degradation around the banks of the river has affected the vegetation. This is mainly the impact of the chemicals within the business and household garbage. Rotting household garbage kills plants and devastates soil, thus creating empty patches of land around the river, where the vegetation is destroyed, and a new one cannot grow.
The impact of pollution on lives around the river
Pollution compromises the health and wellbeing of humans, animals and plants around the riverbanks. We will discuss some of the negative impacts of pollution on living environments.
- Human health
The outbreak of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, Hepatitis A, and typhoid, caused by pathogenic microorganisms are quite common among the riverside communities. According to the World Health Organization report (2015), waterborne diseases are responsible for 2 million deaths per year in the developing world. This is mainly contributed by the drinking and swimming off the river water.
- River strangulation:
Garbage disposed into the river has increased during the years and built up into mountains of garbage, thus narrowing down the waterway into strangulation. This has created the following problems:
- Such mountains of garbage on the banks of the river created health hazards to the riverside communities;
- Mountains of garbage on both sides of the mountain caused the river to get strangulated;
- Garbage disposed into the river settled down in the riverbed (see figure 1) causing the river to flood and overwhelm riverside communities;
Figure 1: Shebelle River, Afgoie, garbage dumping on both sides of the river strangulates the river.
- Riverbanks are a land of farming and livestock, and when people drink contaminated water and animals consume polluted water and garbage that compromises their health. Moreover, the invasion of plastics brought to them by water and wind are consumed by the animals.
- During the dry season, the river dries up, and the leftover patches of stagnant water are the only source of water for people and their animals.
Hence without intervention, the river will be almost blocked, thus increasing the risk of overflowing and flooding the riverside communities, even when the water current is not that strong. In turn, this will increase the rate and frequency of flooding.
Main Pollutants and Contaminants
There different pollutants and contaminants responsible for the current crises of Shebelle River, which we will discuss below:
Sewage discharged into the river by businesses, specifically restaurants and residential buildings are critically in increasing due to poor sewage infrastructure. At the same time, the authorities and non-profit organizations are silent from it.
For years the river was the landfill of the riverside towns. Households and businesses empty all kinds of garbage into the river. Sometimes people go to the river to do their laundry at the riverbanks with detergents and bleach running into the river.
As discussed earlier, single-use plastic bags from households and other wrapping plastics from businesses are the main culprits of river pollution. Thus, the regulation of plastics is a priority to save the rivers.
Restaurants usually dump cooking oil waste and dishwashing products, plus their sewage into the river. Cooking oil and other fatty food byproducts are released into the river and sea by the riverside restaurants and bars, taking advantage of their proximity to the waterways.
- River towns usually bring together the urban and rural environments, side by side, due to the farming opportunities which encourage urbanites to cultivate farmland and keep livestock, while at the same time continuing their city life. As well, animals graze on the riverbanks, which pass through the towns, where garbage is dumped. Consequently, this gives the animals an abundance of contaminated food, including plastics.
- Every year, as the riverside communities have learned, the strong river current pushes garbage dumped into the river to cleanse itself. However, what such communities don not understand is that their garbage is dumped into the banks of other communities as far as the ocean, thus contributing to the oceanic pollution.
The most critical intervention is to do a well-organized series of public awareness campaigns. It is obvious when people use the river as a landfill and, at the same time, drink from it; there is a lack of understanding about the consequences of this kind of behavior. There are communities scattered about 15000 Km alongside rivers Shebelle and Juba that need awareness of the reality and life around the rivers. They need to know how to treat and live with their rivers as a source of their livelihoods.
More than the technical rehabilitation of the rivers, community awareness programs are more critical for the following reasons:
- While river rehabilitation projects require engineers and other experts with heavy-duty equipment to work on the rivers, awareness campaign leaders require simple training programs and types of equipment to do the job;
- While the physical river rehabilitation work is very costly and time-consuming, awareness campaigns are less costly and less time consuming;
- River pollution has a direct impact on people’s lives and livelihoods and, therefore, cannot wait any longer.
Since the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, river rehabilitation has ceased, and their use was not regulated. Moreover, rivers became a dumping ground for household garbage. At this point, it is essential to service the river barrages and canals to minimize flooding. More importantly, it is essential to raise the awareness of the riverside communities and educate them about the impact of garbage dumping in the river on their lives and their livestock. Likewise, banning single-use plastic bags should be considered.