Two years after experts warned that the soil in Ayaha valley near Hargeysa in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland was contaminated with chemicals, local authorities have yet to move about 18,000 people living there to a safer site.
A strong smell hangs over the villages dotted across the valley.
Farah Abdilahi Abrar, Somaliland's director of disaster preparedness, told IRIN that the contamination had posed "real dangers" to the people living there. He declined to give details, referring the matter instead to the Ministry of Agriculture, which he said was responsible for overseeing efforts to contain the problem.
Noor Ahmed Ibrahim, director-general of the Somaliland Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN: "Most of the measures proposed [to minimize the risk] are yet to be implemented."
An official at the land department in Hargeysa municipality, who requested anonymity, told IRIN that efforts to relocate the residents were hindered by inadequate land around the municipality and the refusal by the people living in the area to move far away.
The chemicals, mainly pesticides, had been stored by the Desert Locust Control Organisation (DLCO). The regional body is also involved in controlling migratory pests such as grain-eating birds, the army worm and the tsetse fly in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
"Our station was overrun during the [the late Siyad] Barre war [of 1991]," Peter Odiyo, the director of DLCO, told IRIN from his organisation's headquarters in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
"Hargeysa was our main operational base," Odiyo added. "But it was vandalised by people who did not care about pollution. The [Ayaha] valley may have been affected."
A disposal team, Odiyo added, was currently taking stock of whatever may still be there and preparing to dispose it of.
"The valley was not the only site," Odiyo told IRIN. "There were also other sites."
Another DLCO officer, Nicholas Wambugu, told IRIN that records obtained from the valley alone on 30 October 1989, showed that 14,200 litres of different chemicals - including fenitrothion, malathion, diazionon and durban - were in the DLCO stores. The chemicals were stored in 200 litre metallic drums, he added.
"People took them away in the chaos," Wambugu told IRIN. "Three of our watchmen who tried to stay got shot."
Ibrahim told IRIN that during heavy bombardment of Hargeysa by Barre's forces from 1989 to 1990, some of the drums got hit and chemicals were spilled. The forces were trying to dislodge the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM), which had entered Hargeysa.
The war ended in late 1991, after Barre fled Mogadishu and the SNM took control of Hargeysa. According to Ibrahim, local residents later opened some of the containers, poured the chemicals away and started using the empty drums for water storage and in construction work.
"The dangers have escalated," Ibrahim said. "There are cases of deformities reported in children born around the contaminated areas [suspected to be linked to the contamination], and [suspicious] deaths, including two of my ministry watchmen guarding the DLCO compound. They used containers from the compound to store drinking water."
The experts, who were hired from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service by the UN Development Programme in 2003 to assess the level of contamination in the area, warned that the valley was contaminated.
Their report, dated 13 July 2003, states that soil samples taken around the DLCO compound showed the presence of 92.72 percent lindane, 89 percent hetachlor, 90.69 percent aldrin, 92.58 percent alpha-endosulfan, 70 percent DDE, 70.19 percent endrin, 89.21 percent dieldrin and 90.23 percent beta-endosulfan.
"Some chemical drums are suspected to be buried inside the main compound, and they could still contain some active chemicals," the experts said. "This is a high chemical contaminated area which should be free of human and domestic animal activities."
The 2003 report stated that the "nearest living quarters are just 14-20 metres from the perimeter wall." It warned: "Due to lack of land in the city and huge number of returnees, residential houses around the ex-DLCO compound are increasing at an alarming rate."
"The high concentration of organochlorine pesticides detected in the soil samples indicates high contamination of the entire Ayaha valley," the report added. "The contamination can be classified as an example of a catastrophe of mass proportion."
The experts warned that organochlorine pesticides were persistent chemicals which could last in the environment for a long time.
"During rainy seasons, the chemicals after being washed downstream into the municipality of Hargeysa will pose a big danger to the town’s residents and those living in the valley who often use the streams to fetch drinking water," the report noted.
According to the experts, it was necessary to ascertain whether deformities among children and high rate of miscarriage experienced in the valley could have resulted from the high chemical concentration in and around the ex-DLCO compound.
They recommended that families living in Ayaha valley be relocated to a safer area. They also advised that no returnees or other residents be allowed to settle there, that the contaminated area be fenced off and that soil believed to contain the pesticides be removed.
UN agencies and NGOs discussed the report and recommended that a joint task force be set up with the government to implement measures proposed by the consultants.
A letter from UNDP said the experts had showed the "extent of this contamination" and "confirms our worst fears".
On the basis of these findings, the task force was set up.
However since its creation in September 2004, the task force has only constructed a perimeter wall around the DLCO compound and started some mobilisation activities in the communities against dangers posed by contamination.
Ibrahim told IRIN that while he had urged Hargeysa municipal authorities not to construct a primary school next to the compound, a six-room school has been built.
Local residents told IRIN they were worried that the presence of the chemicals had affected their health.
Amina Warfa, a 42-year-old mother of two who has lived in the valley since her childhood, told IRIN that she had suffered two miscarriages in the past four years.
Abdi Saleban Hassan, headmaster of Ayaha Primary School, which is situated 50 metres away from the DLCO compound, told IRIN that the aid agencies had stopped a feeding programme at the school and parents now feared bringing their children to class.
A visit to the site over the weekend showed that ordinary people are oblivious to the dangers posed by the chemicals. Livestock grazed in the area, children were playing nearby.
"Some people still jump over the perimeter wall to steal the contaminated containers," Fatuma Diriye, a local resident, told IRIN.