Curse of the X-Press Pearl
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe Ceylon Today Features
Although oceans cover 70 per cent of the planet’s surface area more than 80 per cent of the oceans remain unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. However, what we know of the oceans so far, which is very little, is enough to know how vital the oceans are for our survival. Unknown to many, more than 50 per cent of planet’s oxygen is produced by the oceans.
The biodiversity of oceans is far greater than anywhere else in the planet and they also provide primary protein sources for over a billion people worldwide. Oceans also play a vital role in world’s economy. It is believed that by 2030, more than 40 million people will be employed in ocean-based industries.
Often dubbed as ‘lungs of the planet’ oceans render an immeasurable service for humankind but unfortunately, we haven’t been so kind on the oceans. In a relatively short period of time, we have fished 90 per cent of oceans’ large fish resources and have destroyed 50 per cent of its coral reefs.
We are taking more from the ocean at a rate far greater than its ability to replenish. It is in this light that the word celebrates World Ocean day today (8) under the official theme, ‘The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods’. As far as official United Nations (UN) days go World Ocean Day holds special significance as it directly involves the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources by 2030.
Unfortunately though, we Sri Lankans are not setting a good example on the important UN day as we are still trying to contain the damages cause by the sinking X-Press Pearl – the worst marine ecological disaster to have occurred in Sri Lankan waters.
While politicians port authorities, shipping companies, and even those who are in charge of rescue operations are being scrutinised for lack of response, slow response, and not having the technical knowhow to deal with such a disaster in a manner that ensures minimum damage to the nature, the ecological damage the ship fire causing continues to impact the coasts and waters of Western Sri Lanka.
During the weekend another three turtles were found dead and washed ashore at Wellawatta, and although the bodies are being examined at Attidiya Wildlife Rehabilitation centre, the environmentalists have no doubt of the direct link between the deaths and the X-Press Pearl. The ship when arrived at Sri Lankan waters over two weeks ago and caught fire, had 1,486 containers on board, according to the website of the owners of the ship, M.T.I. Network, Singapore.
Among them were 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 297 tonnes of fuel, and another 81 containers filled with hazardous items. According to the shipping company’s website, the ship contained eight out of nine types of hazardous cargo, with the exception of radioactive material. However, exact inventory of the ship’s cargo has not yet been made public, much to the concern of environmentalists.
Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella speaking of the incident said that there is a reasonable doubt that whether the whole incident is an attempt to dump nuclear waste illegally in the sea. “Suspicions have arisen whether these 81 shipping containers had heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead which could be much harmful than nitric acid if released to the sea,” he opined.
While the fishermen of the area are now facing difficulties carrying on their fishing activities and selling the caught fish, experts warn that the worst case scenario could be far worse than these immediate issues the communities are dealing with. “Perhaps this could be tragic end of our sea dying. If the marine ecosystem dies it affects a larger community in the country, not to mention how consuming fish from the area can increase the risk of having cancer,” Ranwella said.
Not just the west coast of the country but the debris from the ship have been reported in as far away beaches as Midigama in Galle. “When nitric acid mixed with water the small fish and other marine animals living in the area didn’t just die but their flesh and bone were dissolved in the acid.
The sea algae in the area died and calcium carbonate was also dissolved in the acid, destroying the corals we managed to grow after years of trouble in an instant. A three-inch coral takes three years to grow and the authorities allowed this destruction for an insurance sum,” Environmentalist Dr. Ajantha Perera also opined. The first to be washed ashore from the burning ship were the plastic pellets which are the raw material for making plastic bags.
Ridding beaches off the millions of pellets washed ashore is now proving to be a daunting task for the armed forces involved in the clean-up process. During a press conference held to commemorate the World Environment Day the Centre for Environment Justice opined that without a proper mechanism of collecting these pellets, Sri Lanka would not be able to collect even half of the damage in next few years.
The damage caused by the X-Press Pearl continues to worsen by the day. As we celebrate World Oceans Day today, it is vital to take necessary and swift actions to stop further damage and save whatever is left of our marine ecosystem. (Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)