Pic courtesy SL Air Force
On Thursday, the massive super oil tanker MT New Diamond, carrying 270,000 tons of crude oil and 1,700 MT of diesel issued a distress call of a fire on board its engine room. The ship was drifting close toward our eastern coast - 37 nautical miles off Sangamankadai Point in the East coast. Efforts to put out the fire had failed and the fire was spreading rapidly. Local navy personnel who were the first to reach the scene, were helpless as they lacked fire fighting equipment to put out the blaze.
Shocking! one is forced to say, given the fact that just two years ago, as exposed by our sister paper the -‘Daily FT’- when a fire broke out in 2017 on board the container-carrying vessel MSC Daniela, the government had to call on the Indian navy for help to put that blaze out too.
Over two years have since passed, but the then authorities appear to have not learned any lessons and our forces are still without the necessary equipment needed to put out a fire when the need arises. A sad resume for a country, which for over the past decade, has made very public aspirations to make this nation a hub for international shipping!
Sadly, Sri Lanka has had many similar ambitious plans, but her rulers have never had the time nor inclination to take practical measures to turn these empty words and or promises into meaningful actions which could save us the blushes of not being in a position to face problems in our own backyard. We remember a time, we spoke boastfully of becoming the ‘Wonder of Asia’. Well, we have fallen far short.
In the end, at the request of our government, Indian navy ships, tug boats and Russian vessels lying at anchor at the Hambantota harbour together with our own Naval and Air Force personnel brought the fire under control and by Sunday, President Rajapaksa thanked India, the Russians and our own forces for bringing the fire under control and preventing a major environmental disaster.
The silver lining in the dreadful episode, has once again been the ability, courage bravery and skill of the forces personnel who put their lives on the line in the effort to tow the burning vessel away from the country’s shores. We are hopeful that the incident would not result in the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry. Since last November, we have seen the appointment of a plethora of Commissions of Inquiry into various acts of Commission or omission of the immediate past regime.
What the country needs urgently is prompt action to enable the disaster management authorities with facilities needed to be prepared to tackle disasters before they occur. Let us remember around 55 million tonnes of oil is transported worldwide via Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the experiences of 2017 and the ongoing possible calamity of the ‘New Diamond’ tells of the need to be prepared for similar experiences in the future.
The ITOPF which maintains a database of oil spills from oil tanker vessels over the last 50 years, points out oil spills from tankers have showed a marked downward trend. But we need to be prepared to face any possible eventuality. Oil spills have serious negative environmental and socio-economical impacts. Marine and coastal habitats, wildlife species, recreational activities and fisheries are among the resources and sectors that are affected by oil spills.
Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) has pointed out that an oil leak from the vessel would have a disastrous effect on marine species especially on whales, dolphins and turtles which are abundantly seen in the seas off Ampara.
This in turn affects the lives of thousands of families involved in fisheries and the leisure trade. In addition, the cleanup from the disaster would be time-consuming, while rehabilitation of marine species even longer. The tourists would go elsewhere, and what of those, whose occupations are dependent on these sectors? The tourism industry was devastated in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks and almost completely annihilated by the COVID-19 pandemic. An oil spill would probably spell its death knell. Plans for development need to look not only at immediate profits, but take into consideration plans to protect these assets.
Our giant neighbour India has through its ability to rush in, in our (Sri Lanka’s) hour of need, shows its preparedness to deal with emergency crises through forward planning. Let us be humble enough to learn from the experience.