Three weeks after the self-declared republic of Somaliland banned plastic bags, the landscape of its capital city, Hargeysa, continues to be dominated by the brightly coloured bags.
Somaliland officials have insisted the 1 March ban has taken effect, but ordinary Somalilanders say the use of the bags, known locally as "Hargeysa flowers" because they are often found on trees, has continued unabated not only in the capital, but in towns such as Berbera, Borama and Burao as well.
"If the government wants us to stop using the bags, then it should provide us with a good and lasting alternative[s] for free," Asha Mohamed, a trader selling used clothes in the main market, told IRIN on Wednesday.
Information Minister Abdillahi Duale told IRIN in March that people should be using reusable, environmentally friendly baskets and containers, such as sacks made of straws, reeds and sisal. "These are the kind of containers that our people traditionally used," he said.
However, Mohamed said that "the majority of us cannot afford baskets and containers, [and] we find the plastic bags friendly and easily foldable."
At the grocery section of the market, hundreds of women were carrying the bags. "[They] can carry a considerable weight of goods without tearing like paper bags," Faisa Mohamed, a mother of two, explained.
Somaliland’s government gave the public 120 days’ grace at the end of 2004 to dispose of their stocks, but despite this, the bags still litter the streets.
When Duale announced the ban at the beginning of March, he told IRIN: "The bags have not only become an environmental problem, but also an eyesore."
He explained that they were harmful to livestock, as animals that fed on shrubs often ingested the bags accidentally.
The khat trade’s role
Many of the plastic bags clogging Somaliland’s drains have been used by khat traders. Bundles of khat, a plant stimulant chewed by many Somalis, are usually sold wrapped in the bags.
Ibrahim Omar, a khat seller, told IRIN in Hargeysa on Tuesday that the stimulant was sold in plastic bags to "keep the khat under optimum temperature", since the plant was highly perishable. Given the dry, hot temperatures in Somaliland, he added, it would lose moisture quickly if left exposed.
"The plastic bag acts like a fridge for the buyers," Omar explained. "Without putting khat inside the plastic bag the plant would get destroyed within minutes, hence the buyer would not get the stimulation he was seeking."
After Nuur Omar Sheikh Muse, the minister of trade and industries, issued March’s decree, entitled: "Banning importation, production and use of plastic bags in the country", Duale said it would be followed by an awareness campaign to inform the public about the dangers of the bags.
However, local environmental activists have said the government has not yet embarked on the promised campaign to discourage people from using them.
Mohamed Ali Mataan, one of the activists, told IRIN he was worried that ink used to brand the plastic bags could also eventually contaminate the water system.
Nonetheless, Duale has promised: "We are determined as a government to enforce this ban, no matter what," adding that all the country's harbours, airports and other border points have been instructed to enforce the ban.
Yet sources in Hargeysa told IRIN that not only were bags still being imported, but a local plastics factory in the town was also continuing to manufacture them.
Asked about the factory, Trade Minister Sheikh Muse told IRIN on Wednesday that "the government has ordered the factory to continue to manufacture a certain amount of bags for a certain period until the majority obtain an environmental-friendly substitute - and we will definitely [be] going to regulate its production."
He made these comments despite describing the situation as "a disaster in the making, and had we hesitated, the long-term and negative effects could have endangered the lives of both human beings and livestock."
Importers who defied the ban, he promised, would face severe penalties.
Plastic-bag importers in Hargeysa, who wished to remain anonymous, told IRIN they were opposed to the ban because it was "harsh and ill-timed", and they believed it would lead to loss of revenue for the government.
Urging that the ban be lifted until a cheaper, reliable alternative was found, one of the importers claimed that the ban was a ploy to allow the local factory to gain a monopoly in bag production.
In a report released during the 21-25 February meeting of the Governing Council of the UN Environment Programme in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, researchers in neighbouring Kenya recommended that thin plastic bags, used widely across the country for carrying shopping, be banned because they polluted the environment and were a potential health hazard.
They said the bags - which were so flimsy they could only be used once - littered both rural and urban environments, blocked gutters and drains, choked farm animals and marine wildlife, and polluted the soil as they gradually broke down.
Prof Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the Kenyan assistant minister for environment, has linked plastic-bag litter with malaria. She has said that discarded bags that have filled with rainwater offer ideal breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.