The poisonous ship – what price for environmental devastation? – Ground views
Photo courtesy of The New York Post
“There will be huge sums of compensation for the damage caused by the vessel X-Press Pearl in Sri Lankan waters, this is indeed essential for Sri Lanka during this economic crisis.This is a politician’s perception of ship-source pollution caused by the X-Press Pearl, which caught fire and sank in Sri Lankan waters. Not only politicians but the majority of the public are also unaware of how compensation for catastrophic pollution from ships works.
Being fifth on the Global Coastal Index for the 20 countries identified for the dumping of polyethylene and plastic in the oceans, Sri Lanka is expected to claim and use the compensation for the sustainable management of the marine environment.
What happened to the Singapore-registered Pearl X-Press, which caught fire near the Colombo due to a nitric acid leak? Despite efforts by Sri Lanka and India to contain the blaze, several containers tumbled into the sea. Remnants of burnt containers and plastic raw materials washed up on Negombo beach, while tablets miniature and dangerous low-density polyethylene have been found inside dead fish. Although there has been no oil spill so far, the burnt plastics have caused a greasy stain around the ship.
The Convention on the Law of the Sea contains many details on the rights and duties of states to take proactive measures regarding pollution caused by ships which vary depending on the maritime area in which the pollution took place. The public has the right to know the consequences and the compensation received for the maritime calamity.
Authorities from the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) said they were still assessing the damage. Compensation should include damage to the environment, fishing and tourism. Compensation for environmental destruction should include the costs of reasonable measures taken, to be taken and to restore the environment to its former condition. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that these remediation measures accelerate the natural recovery of environmental damage. However, there is a lack of research in the management of the marine environment. Basic data on the values of coastal and marine ecosystems, qualitative and quantitative information on ecosystems is limited exclusively to Sri Lanka. This delays the process of assessing damage caused by marine accidents and inevitably delays measures to restore the environment.
General claims for damage to the marine environment are not admissible under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means that no compensation will be paid for claims of a non-economic nature. Future generations will not be able to reap the benefits of intact ecosystems because, despite the magnitude of the recovery actions, none of the ecosystems will be the same as before. Thus, the consequences for future generations will not be comprehensively understood in the context of compensation. However, there are methodologies for calculating these future values economically, such as contingent valuation methods; marine resources must be valued not only for the value of damaged ecosystems but also for future values.
The assessment of marine ecosystems is limited to sites such as the only functional marine protected area, Pigeon Island in Trincomalee. Claims made are unlikely to be sufficient to compensate for damage to marine and coastal ecosystems. Therefore, it is time for international laws to be changed to take into account the sustainability component of recovery actions due to pollution caused by ships in the oceans.
For developing coastal countries like Sri Lanka, pollution incidents from ships pose economic threats due to the significant contribution to GDP from the tourism and fishing sectors. Currently, both sectors have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no coral reefs near the ship, but if an oil spill does occur it will impact surrounding sensitive ecosystems such as lagoons, river estuaries and mangroves. These ecosystems have already been polluted by chemicals from the ship, affecting the fishing and tourism sectors.
Fishermen from Wattala to Negombo, already affected by COVID-19 restrictions, are not allowed to fish and have no alternative livelihoods. They are unable to access government compensation programs due to a lack of transparency and accountability. The region’s tourism sector suffered the same fate.
The public lacks environmental illiteracy; regardless of warnings to avoid picking up debris, coastal communities collect hazardous materials because they face economic hardship.
Although this is the second pollution incident caused by ships in Sri Lankan waters since 2020, the compensation framework is not sophisticated enough to deal with the consequences.
Lessons learned from ship pollution incidents in other countries have helped develop inclusive maritime safety designs for countries where all sources of damage (environment, fishing and tourism) have been included when applying for compensation. Some countries have special funds to help in these cases.
Sri Lanka should also consider expanding its horizons to deal with pollution caused by ships, as the country is on the verge of expanding its port capacity to attract more ships. It is also essential to improve environmental literacy by including the subject in school curricula.
The country must prepare for maritime accidents because this will not be the last to occur in its territorial waters.