The latest tragedy to befall Sri Lanka was that of the major fire on board the Singapore-registered vessel MV X-Press Pearl off the coast of Negombo. The vessel was carrying several containers of chemicals, cosmetics and 25 tons of Nitric Acid, which on its own would not burn but would explode should it come in contact with certain substances.
According to media reports, the ship’s operator having noticed the leakage of nitric acid from one of the containers had sought permission to have it off-loaded in Qatar and then in India, but after having been refused permission had set sail to Singapore, passing Sri Lanka. The blazing fire was doused by fire-fighters from the Sri Lankan and Indian Navy after a six-day round-the-clock operation with a hunk of twisted metal left behind from the three-month old vessel.
The authorities are still in the process of evaluating the unprecedented ecological marine disaster caused by the blazing MV X-Press Pearl with large stretches of the coastal belt now thickly coated in toxic debris and the destruction of the marine life in the seas surrounding Sri Lanka is too hard to comprehend.
Images of the beach in Negombo, once a popular tourist destination, but now lying utterly desolate and devastated with shoals of dead fish dotting the area, have generated outrage around the country. The main livelihood of thousands of families living along the coastal belt is derived from fishing and the pollution of the sea and the marine species, which according to environmentalists will take several years to return to normal, would deal a telling blow to their way of life.
This is the latest in a string of calamities to befall Sri Lanka since the Easter Sunday massacre on April 21, 2019, where on a single day hundreds of innocent people were killed, while hundreds more were injured, some maimed for life in Sri Lanka’s post-war history. Then in March last year, Sri Lanka was hit on the head as it were by the coronavirus pandemic, worsening by the day. Even the vaccination programme launched by the government in January 2021, is still to make any sizeable impact on the raging viral infection. The vaccine rollout -- many without even the first dose and many more uncertain when they will get the second – should be better managed by the government. It should have been alert enough to look for alternative sources soon after the Serum Institute of India (SII) officially informed the health authorities that it was unable to fulfill its contractual obligations instead of blithely proclaiming that the SII will send the paid-for COVISHEILD vaccines to Sri Lanka as promised. The pathetic situation cries out for urgent remedial measures before the pandemic rages out of control, if it has not happened already.
On September 3 last year, Sri Lanka had a near miss when the 330-metre-long Panamanian-registered MV New Diamond carrying 270,000 tons of crude oil caught fire off the eastern cost, thankfully the Sri Lankan and Indian Navy managed to douse the fire and tow the ship out of the danger zone to mid sea amid fears of an oil spill.
On April 20, 2021, Sri Lanka had another close call when China bound cargo vessel MV BBC Naples carrying radioactive Uranium Hexafluoride docked in the Hambantota Port. The port authorities said the vessel had failed to declare the hazardous nature of the cargo on board and was asked to leave no sooner it was found to be carrying Radioactive Uranium. The ship managed by the China Merchants Port Holding Company is said to have developed technical difficulties after leaving the Rotterdam Port in the Netherlands.
The bottom line in all these large scale calamities is that neither officials nor institutions have ever been found responsible or held accountable while the helpless people have to pay the price. It is common knowledge that under the ‘UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’, no vessel can enter a country’s economic zone without approval from the mandated institution. Whoever who permitted this vessel with a container leaking Nitric Acid to enter the port, has badly let down Sri Lanka and us its people.
The Sri Lankan government needs to learn from the past, if not, what happened with the uranium-loaded MV BBC Naples, the oil-tanker MV Diamond and now the MV Pearl Express would continue with the likelihood of the next calamity being worse than the one previous.