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Climate Change – call for a united front

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“Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath”-Nathaniel H. Egleston

At the turn of the 20th century, amidst the deteriorating environmental conditions, Nathaniel Egleston –the second Chief of the US Division of Forestry – took to his guilty conscience, awakened by a then-murky threat to existence that loomed large and heavy, and took his woes to the public eye. Through his renowned article for the Harper’s magazine, titled “what we owe the trees”, Egleston expressed his concerns about the influence of the then-pioneering Industrial Revolution on both the landscape and demography. He saw what others could not – capitalism at the expense of survival, veiled in the guise of a better way of living. While humans marveled at the leaps and bound it made, the ‘almighty dollar’ took helm and Mother Nature took the fall. Trees gained superficial economic value, and lumber production became common parlance – money was rolling in the pockets like never before, and the dollar assumed divinity. People took and took whatever they wanted from mother nature without holding their end of the bargain – there was no give-and-take; just take. People had adopted what Egleston pointed out as a “freebooter style”, and he could see what everything was leading up to – humanity at a crossroads with nature. Reforestation was then alien a concept, and there was no sight of karmic justice. Nature did come to settle the bargain once or twice, but it did not awake the human conscience on a global scale. The infamous smog of 1952 capitalized on the remorse of industrialists, but after a series of repeated denials of the correlation between the deaths and the pollution that the coal stations emitted, prompted the British government to reconsider its energy mix and pass the world’s first “Clean Air Act”. But that was it for the rest of the world then, for money had to be made fast and economies had to be built. Profiteering became humanity’s best friend at the expense of the trees – our sincerest compadres. Common wisdom dictates that the value of something is not realized until it is gone, and the same applies to mother nature – trees slowly exacted its vengeance, and the world we lived in changed for the worse. We won the battle but slowly started losing the war without even knowing about it; or how Egleston subtly says:

“The trees are man’s best friends; but man has treated them as his enemies. The history of our race may be said to be the history of warfare upon the tree world. But while man has seemed to be the victor, his victories have brought upon him inevitable disasters”

Humans are creatures of habit – where threats to survival loom in, the conscience breaks free and humanity is pushed to a united front. Lands, weapons and bombs may have reigned supreme for a while, but no more – there’s a new kid on the block, and he is as ruthless and merciless as one can be. Even the monster under the bed falls pale in comparison to the nightmare of our own creation. Climate change – or perhaps more aptly, climate ‘breakdown’ – is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the twenty-first century.2020 bears witness to it – was the world not warned earlier about the impacts of messing with the environment, one of them being an outbreak of zoonotic vector-borne disease? Were red flags not raised on every medium possible (with even Netflix featuring an explanatory episode in its popular infotainment show, “Explained”, on the looming risks of the pandemic)?  Were they not raised high enough? Did we not hold our end of the bargain with nature? It is ironic for the very species that relies on the trees – for the oxygen to breathe in, for the fruits it bears for energy, for the by-products it expels for the profiteering we wag our tails around, and for regulating extreme temperatures that we face (to name a few) – to take it for granted. Did trees change course? No, but humans did. Egleston would be turning in his grave right about now.

So, what has exactly brought humanity to crossroads with nature? What has brought the need to fight for our survival? And the most important questions that one need to ask is: why is unanimity of support a forlorn dream? Why is climate modification not treated as an existential threat in various modicums of the social order? Rational questions with irrational directives, one must say.

“Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time”

(IPCC)

The proof is truly in the pudding. People have started to notice. Glaciers have shrunk; ice caps on water bodies are breaking apart; water body levels are rising and getting warmer; temperature and weather patterns are exhibiting volatile aberrations; species are changing trajectories; the flora and fauna around are slowly counting its days; trees are flowering sooner than expected; agricultural yields are shrinking; water cycles are accelerated in an unhealthy discourse for its inhabitants; coral reefs are bleaching; marine and terrestrial ecosystems are on the brink of destruction; and the list goes on. By 2018, mean warming of about 1.2°C beyond preindustrial baseline has already caused unacceptable impacts, but it does not stop there. The demons are coming sooner than one predicted – as per WMO’s estimates, the mean increase of 1.5°C, expected by 2030, will be here earlier than expected (no more than in the following five years). There’s more – through 2024, nearly every region on Earth is predicted to be hotter than it has been in the “recent past”. The Arctic region will experience the most significant warming by then – it has already witnessed its ‘historic’ loss in ice caps in the year 2020. The Antarctic region will experience the most significant storms by then – something it does not usually bid hello to. Forget horror movies and folklores for the thrills and chills; we’ve set a stage for all the horrors to follow. The climate change models, unlike most models of differing purposes, have remained mostly accurate. The pandora’s box is slowly unravelling, and the wake-up call has never sounded more desperate than now.

“As climate model projections have matured, more signals have emerged from the noise of natural variability that allow for retrospective evaluation of other aspects of climate models — for instance, in Arctic sea ice and ocean heat content. But it’s the temperature trends that people still tend to focus on.”

(Gavin Schmidt)

It is true that temperatures and weather patterns are changing. But what does it mean for the survival of human life, exactly? Well, the more the world stockpiles on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more we risk the depletion of the protective stratospheric ozone layer – 2020 bears witness to the historic deficit in ozone layer over the Antarctic region. The deficit that, in the preceding year, exhibited the lowest historic contraction ever has left everyone in a flurry of negative emotions, and that too in a year where anything and everything could happen. More harmful ultraviolet radiations (the B- and C- types) are able to easily penetrate all protective layers that the atmosphere harbors. This is where greenhouse gases add insult to injury –if any heat was meant to escape, the entrapment of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, to name a few, will ensure that the lid remains tight. In effect, heat waves become common practice. More people are affected and pushed to the gallows with increasing prevalence of heat cramps and strokes. Rates of melanoma and cataracts cases keep jumping with every day we choose to turn a blind eye to mother nature. Children are resultantly born with genetic mutations. When the human body’s core temperature reaches the temperature of 38.5°C, an adult is exposed to a cascade of symptoms, and healthy organ functioning is, in due process, compromised. Living a healthy life has become a difficult and often dangerous task to fulfill.

“Climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is a technology, water, food, energy, [and] population issue. None of this happens in a vacuum”

(David W. Titley)

It takes on a toll on the produce that we eat and the water we drink to surviveon. With trees maturing faster than disposed, the fruits they bear do not necessarily possess the nutrients it ought to carry – in extreme cases, they bear no fruits at all. For the capitalist and profiteers, another perspective might run a chill down the spine: crop yields are falling. Forget biofuels if the crops are not enough to even feed a single person. For the consumers, it equates to undernutrition and malnutrition. Climate modifications will alter the trajectory of migration patterns of harmful insects and pests – the locust infestation (and the economic and social losses it carried with it) should come as no surprise at all for the inhabitants of Kenya, Somalia and some South-East Asian nations (Pakistan included). With an already-domineering situation of global poverty, undernourishment and malnutrition, the developing nations will take the first hit. They already have. Others will follow suit.

“The violence that exists in the human heart is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air, and in living things”

(Pope Francis)

One of the many things that makes humans special from the rest of the animal kingdom is their diverse dietary needs – they rely not just on the fruits of our toil, but also on the flesh and produce of certain animals. While the continuity of various crops dangles on thin ice, the fate of animals (and the animal kingdom, as a whole) also hangs on a balance. Lands are riddled with increasing prevalence of droughts and depleting yields. Eutrophication is accelerating beyond control, and water bodies are deprived of the necessary conditions to regulate life within. In effect, habitats are altered or become inhabitable – the warming ocean bodies are already pushing schools of fish away from their original habitats. Migration carries with it the potential risk of an epidemic outbreak – the fresh wounds from the coronavirus outbreak should be enough to sum up the detriments of the latter. Adding fuel to the fire, the woes of water- and air-pollution are threatening to adulterate the food chain at large – clean water bodies, for instance,are be robbed of the purity and benefit it was meant to offer. The 1956 Minamata outbreak in Japan is as good an example as any.

Breathing nowadays feels like playing with fire – with an abundance of noxious and toxic gases present in the air we breathe, one improves the odds of physiological impairments and mortality. And with the increasing concentration of ozone and greenhouse gases, nature’s self-cleansing protocol is violated – the pollutants are unable to escape even the troposphere (our breathing space). Even in small quantities, this poisonous cocktail of gases poses an existential threat of grave repercussions. These gases silently pile up within the respiratory or circulatory systems, accumulating to the point where they are no more a drop of poison; rather, an ocean of it.

If the aforementioned fails to serve its purpose, then perhaps economic woes might titillate the conscience of the ‘dollar-guided’. Undeterred increments of temperature and climatic detriments would mean a drastically-abridged fertility of the lands that we rely on. Crops will fail to mature efficiently. The products do not command the same value as it used to. The swelling of droughts and siltation has made land unsuitable for any use, let alone agriculture or construction. The livelihoods of people dependent on such lands has gravely contracted, adding to the woes of different socio-economic classes within. Anomalous calamities – acid rains, storms and otherwise – are reigning supreme. Land is losing its value in more ways than just economic ones – the price tag means nothing if it can’t satiate the socioeconomic and necessitated value that it ought to deliver.

“There is one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of a changing climate”

(Barack Obama)

If something needs to be done, it needs to be done now rather than later. And as common wisdom dictates, if there is a will, there is a way – or better still, if there is a will, there is unity. The existential threat is real. There is no denying the harrowing climate statistics – humans tend to aberrate from the truth, but numbers do not lie. It is time to carry the mantle of change ourselves as well and face the looming threat with a cohesive front. Unity has helped generations, and its time the twenty-first century jumped leaps and bounds itself. The lives of the generations to follow depends on how we act today. Time for more Thunbergs and Gores.

“People need to stop financing denial of climate change”

(Al Gore)

For that to happen, an army needs to be raised. The curtains of ignorance must be removed from the field of sight of as many people as possible. Current technological capabilities make it possible to engage more people with facts and information, especially in the way that is understood by a specific person – there is no one-size-fits-all, and the gap between the knowing and otherwise must be mitigated through the way one understands. This is where a robust, rightly-guided and unbiased media takes the spot light – infomercials and public awareness programs must be tailored to local needs (or, rather, the needs of the viewers it hosts). Governmental and not-for-profit organizations of every country must invest the necessary resources – be it time, finance, human capital, and so on – to embark on educating its citizenry. With a plethora of media to capitalize on, this would not be difficult task.

“We must now agree on a binding review mechanism under international law, so that this century can credibly be called a ‘century of [decarbonization]”

(Angela Merkel)

Shiny enterprises and state-of-the-art legislations might look good on paper, but the entire exercise fails if one does not walk the talk – there is no point of a legislation without legally-binding commitments. The relative successes of the Kyoto Protocol are an example of the wonders compliance can do for the world (though one may argue against its efficacy and shortcomings). Moreover, there is no point for a nation to attend a Convention and sign an MEAjust for the sake of the ‘almighty vote-bank’ and leaving it unratified. Even more baffling is the curious case of advanced economies like the US and Canada rashly pulling out of ratified agreements like the Paris Accord – if the world leaders want to inspire and lead by example, they are not doing a very good job at it. Now is not the time of personal interests; mother nature does not discriminate between the rich and poor, white and dark, man and woman, the affluent and poor-struck, and so on. Its’s tongue is one and not bound by any language, and the message is one and same for all; when such is the case, shouldn’t our response follow suit?

“Be part of the solution, not the problem”

(Stephen R. Covey)

The next steps, on an individual and communal level, are self-explanatory – making amends with mother nature. The adulteration of the environment needs to be curbed. For such to happen, existing and prospective pollution-control policies must be undertaken. Carbon-reduction commitments must be expedited to the maximum possible. The fight against ozone-depleting substances must be won at all costs. Redundant and polluting technology and practices must be phased out – it is heartwarming to see a keen player like Pakistan taking big steps in alternating the traditional brick kilns with the modern-day zig zag kilns, or imposing sanctions on stubble-burning to combat the issue of smog and air pollution. If trees are meant to be cut down, the same (or more) must be given back to the Earth – afforestation and reforestation must become common practice (one is again reminded of Pakistan’s awe-inspiring ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project).Economic and social incentives must take root if one is to lure the affluent – tax incentives for adopting, or shifting to, green technology is a good start. Appropriate penalties must hold the miscreants at bay. Humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels in its energy mix must cease to exist. Renewable resources must be sought and exploited to the fullest.

It does not stop here. Municipal and household wastes must be properly disposed. Trash must end up in the correct bin. Vehicles should not emit noxious and unhealthy gases, for which battery-operated engines or green-tech (such as catalytic converters) should do the trick. Industries and pollution hotspots must be built far away from residential areas and water bodies. Emissions should be filtered for toxic gases – a plethora of scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators and filtering technologies are available. Sanctuaries must be built to preserve depleting flora and fauna species. Water bodies must be purified of any non-degradable and poisonous litter it harbors. And the list goes on and on.

“We have a single mission: to protect and hand on the planet to the next generation”

(Francois Hollande)

There is so much to do, but so little time to do everything. Climate change must be taken seriously. The time is past when humanity thought it could selfishly draw on exhaustible resources and do as it please. We all know now that Earthis not a commodity. The battle is lost, but the war is not over(yet). And while the damage has been done, it is not too late to make amends. The lives of our children and theirs hangs in the balance. Solutions to the crisis are within reach, but in order to capture them, we must take urgent action today across every level of society. In order to do so, we need to gather our brains and take helm of the battleground. Climate change has united mankind more than ever, and it’s a race against time and odds. No one says it better than Christine Legarde:

“It is a collective endeavor, it is collective accountability, and it may not be too late”

The debate is no more about the legitimacy of climate change. It is about whether we will live to tell the tales of our successes. Will we make history or become a part of it? The victor at the end of the war will surely know the answer to this.

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Climate change could spark floods in world’s largest desert lake

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UNEP/Duncan Moore / 19 Jul 2021

For years it appeared as though Lake Turkana, which sits in an arid part of northern Kenya, was drying up.

Its main river inflows had been muffled by dams and many feared water levels were poised to drop by two-thirds, causing the lake to cleave into two smaller bodies of water. It was, one report said, an African “Aral Sea disaster in the making” – where only 10 per cent remains of the original sea.

But a new study from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts a far wetter future for Lake Turkana – and possibly a more perilous one for the 15 million people who live on its shores.

The report found that over the next 20 years, climate change could likely lead to heavier rains over Lake Turkana’s river inflows, which would raise water levels in the lake itself and increase the likelihood of severe flooding.

The study urged officials in Kenya and Ethiopia, which both border Lake Turkana, to prepare for a future in which once-rare floods, such as those that hit the region in 2019 and 2020, are regular occurrences.

“Many people think that climate change is a problem for the future,” says Frank Turyatunga, Deputy Head of UNEP’s Africa Office. “But as Lake Turkana shows, it’s happening now and it’s already forcing people to adapt to new conditions.”

Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, is part of the Omo-Turkana basin, which stretches into four countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda. The basin is home to many rare plants and animals.

Since 1988, Ethiopia has built a series of hydroelectric dams on its main tributary, the Omo River, leading to predictions of Lake Turkana’s demise.

Climate projections

Using sophisticated water resources modelling and climate change scenario analysis, the new UNEP report found that up to eight human settlements around the lake could be inundated by flooding periodically. While severe, abrupt flooding has been rare, climate change projections foresee this becoming more regular and impacting more people if adaptation measures are not put in place.

The report called for improved international cooperation and adaptation measures, including reforestation, agroforestry and avoiding construction in areas at risk of flooding.

“In the last two years, rising water levels in Lake Turkana have damaged pastureland, inundated buildings and forced people to flee their homes,” says Tito Ochieng, Director of Water in Kenya’s Turkana County. ”But there is still a mindset in Kenya that lake water levels are constantly falling, which makes planning difficult.”

The study also found evidence of rising water levels in the eight lakes that line Kenya’s Rift Valley. Severe flooding in those lakes in 2019 and 2020 damaged homes and infrastructure – and even reportedly led to a spike in deadly crocodile attacks.

Africa stands out disproportionately as the most vulnerable region in the world to climate change. This vulnerability is driven by the prevailing low levels of socioeconomic growth in the continent. While climate change is global, the poor are disproportionately vulnerable to its effects.

UNEP’s climate change work in Africa supports countries to implement their climate action commitments – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – to meet food security, create income and opportunities for youth, and economic expansion.

Regional cooperation

The report was part of a wider project designed to accelerate cooperation in the border areas between Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

The project also developed an open-source information portal on the basin, based in part on satellite imagery. It contains data on land cover, water quality and soil moisture, and examines the various climate change scenarios.

The report follows the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, a global push to revive natural spaces. It is also part of UNEP’s wider work to monitor and restore freshwater ecosystems worldwide, supporting Sustainable Development Goal 6.

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Six things you can do to bring back mangroves

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Don’t be fooled by their modest appearance: mangroves are important players in some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. They provide a defense between land and sea, absorb carbon, contribute to economic and food security, and are home to some of the most rare and colourful species.

But mangroves are disappearing at an accelerating rate.In some areas of the Western Indian Ocean region – one of the two most important global mangrove hotspots, together with Southeast Asia – more than 80 per cent of mangroves have already been lost.

The United Nations (UN) Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a global rallying cry to change our relationship with nature – from degradation to restoration. Here are six things you can do to start bringing back mangroves today.

1. Understand the importance of mangroves.

Only with healthy ecosystems can we enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change, and stop the collapse of biodiversity.

UNEP research shows that mangrove ecosystems underpin global and local economies, by supporting fisheries, providing other food sources and protecting coastlines. In fact, every hectare of mangrove forest represents an estimated US$33–57,000 per year.  

They’re also important protectors – sheltering land and coastal communities from storms, tsunamis, rising sea levels and erosion. And with the world at risk of a temperature rise of over 3°C this century, mangroves are also an invaluable ally in the race to adapt. They extract up to five times more carbon from the atmosphere than forests on land, and protecting mangroves is 1000 times less expensive, per kilometer, than building seawalls.

Learn more about mangrove ecosystems in this short video; and their role in climate change adaptation in this animation.

2. Understand what is driving their loss.

Home to forty per cent of the world’s population, coastlines are among the most densely-populated areas on Earth. Consequent development of coastlines – clearing mangrove forests to create space for buildings, and to farm fish and shrimp – is the main driver of mangrove loss. Worldwide, this has caused the loss of 20 per cent of mangrove ecosystems. 

Pollution also plays a role. Because they form a protective line between coasts and ocean, mangroves are effectively a “plastic trap”. When plastic bags and litter cover roots and sediment layers, it can starve mangroves of oxygen; and can harm sea animals.

3. Make sustainable choices.

The choices we make are a powerful way to express our values and to affect consumption and demand. Ask questions about the food you consume; choose foods that are sustainably sourced; say no to single-use plastic and reduce consumption in general.   

Learn more about what you can do through the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Clean Seas campaign, and see examples of restoration supportive choices in the Ecosystem Restoration Playbook.

4. Learn how restoration works.

Before planting new mangroves, it is important to understand the cause of forest degradation or disappearance. In the case of pollution, over-harvesting or other causes that can be eliminated, mangroves can recover naturally.

When recovery requires human intervention, it is important to follow key steps, like involving local communities, selecting native seedlings and establishing a functioning nursery. To learn more, see UNEP’s Guidelines on Mangrove Ecosystem Restoration, which elaborate each step of the process.

5. Be an advocate and an activist.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, you can begin to take action today. Discuss the importance of mangroves with your friends, family, colleagues and networks. Share information, images and ideas that inspire you.

If you’re not sure where to start, find inspiration in what others are doing. In Kenya and Madagascar, communities have recognized the contribution of mangroves to their own livelihoods and are actively participating in carbon monitoring, reforestation and education to prevent exploitation and ensure the livelihoods of future generations.

To get ideas about actions that could be right for you, play this game; and go to the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration Implementers Hub to find out how others are taking the lead in this work.

6. Make some noise.

Despite the scale of the challenge, there are solutions; and some governments are already taking action. Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have prioritized mangrove restoration through the Caribbean Biological Corridor initiative; and in Cuba, mangrove forests still cover 70 per cent of the coastline. Pakistan has committed to planting 10 billion trees by 2023 in an initiative led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and supported by UNEP, and millions – if not billions – of these trees will be mangroves. Restoration pledges from other countries can be found here.

UN Environment

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Oil, acid, plastic: Inside the shipping disaster gripping Sri Lanka

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Fires crews attempt to put out the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl. The ship would burn for two weeks before finally sinking. Photo: Unsplash/Nilantha Ilangamuwa

It’s visible in satellite images from just off Sri Lanka’s coast: a thin grey film that snakes three kilometres out to sea before disappearing into the waves.

This, experts say, is fuel oil leaking from the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship that caught fire and sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast last month.

The slick is a visceral reminder of what observers say is a slow-motion environmental disaster – one of the worst in the country’s history – and of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up.

“This is the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan, the acting head of the disasters and conflicts branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Thummarukudyil is among more than a half-dozen UNEP experts advising Sri Lanka’s government on how to contain the toxic fallout from the X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 81 containers of dangerous goods when it sank in June, according to its owner, X-Press Feeders. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.

“This is a toxic ship,” said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “This will be a long-running disaster.”

Fire down below

Crew members first noticed smoke coming from the X-Press Pearl’s hold on 20 May while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Over the next two weeks, fire crews battled a raging inferno punctuated by at least two major explosions. As the ship slowly sunk—it would be 17 June before it settled on the seabed—strong currents scooped up shipping containers and sprinkled them along Sri Lanka’s coast.

One container surfaced more than 100 kilometres south of the wreck, coating prime tourist beaches near the southwestern resort town of Galle with nurdles.

“It was like a cluster bomb,” said Hassan Partow, part of UNEP’s disaster response team.

Plastic pollution

For Sri Lankans, the small plastic pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, have been the most visible sign of the X-Press Pearl sinking.

Using publicly available data, Withanage estimates the ship contained 70-75 billion individual pellets. Partow said the disaster is the single-largest release of nurdles into the ocean ever reported.

The plastic has flooded onto beaches around Colombo. One, Sarukkuwa, was blanketed in meter-deep piles of plastic. The nurdles also turned up in the gills and guts of fish. Local fishers, who have been barred from the rich fishing grounds around Colombo, have blamed the nurdles for killing sea life, though that claim is still being investigated by Sri Lanka scientists. Withanage said pellets have also been found in a turtle sanctuary 300km north of Colombo.

Over time the pellets, which will take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, may build up in the food chain, sickening fish and potentially humans, Withanage said. “When it comes to the environment, every plastic nurdle is a disaster.”

Making matters worse, many of the pellets were charred, causing them to crumble into a potentially toxic powder when disturbed.

“These weren’t just virgin pellets,” said Partow. “Around half were combusted, so the jury is out about their toxicity.”

In the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl sinking, hundreds of Sri Lankan navy, air force and coast guard members were deployed in a massive clean-up operation overseen by the Marine Environment Protection Authority.  Working around the clock under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. The small size of the plastic pellets means that many had to be hand sieved.

There is no way, though, to clean plastic pellets still in the ocean.

“What is in the sea could be there for a long time,” said Thummarukudyil.

A toxic brew

It also appears likely that at least some of the highly corrosive nitric acid aboard the X-Press Pearl seeped into the ocean. Experts are worried it may have scalded sea life at a nearby coral reef. Sri Lanka’s government has recovered turtle carcases that show signs of burns, though Partow said scientists are still examining the animals and that it was too early to determine what had killed them.

While the nitric acid has likely dissipated into the ocean, concerns have now turned to another toxic chemical carried by the X-Press Pearl: epoxy resin. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of epoxy was aboard and experts worry that if it was in toxic liquid form—as opposed to solid form—that it could spread along the Sri Lankan coast.

The ship also contained a witches’ brew of other chemicals, including methanol, gear oil, brake fluid and urea, along with lead, copper and lithium batteries, according to Withanage.

The question of oil

Exactly how much toxic material remains in the ship’s hold or in containers on the ocean floor remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s annual monsoon, coupled with a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown, has hampered salvage efforts.

The ship’s owner, X-Press Feeders, said much of the cargo could have been incinerated in the fire, including the black, molasses-like fuel that powered the X-Press Pearl. But the UN team thinks that even if the oil was burnt it is unlikely to have evaporated. Instead, it would probably be transformed into a more viscous mixture.

“We should assume the oil is still there,” said Thummarukudyil. The ship, he added, was carrying enough oil to blanket Sri Lanka’s entire western coast. “The potential is there for this to be a lot worse than what we’ve already seen.”

Disaster response 

The UNEP staff working on the X-Press Pearl sinking are part of a disaster response unit jointly run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The unit has helped broker an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the X-Press Pearl’s owner to contain a potential offshore oil spill as well as clean-up the shoreline. Specialized equipment, including inflatable booms designed to trap oil, arrived in Colombo on 2 July.

“The United Nations is supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to address the disaster of the MV X-Press Pearl,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “We are coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to ensure a cohesive and coherent response to the crisis (and) ensure prevention of such disasters in the future.”

UNEP has called for the ship’s owner and insurer to hash out what Partow called a “peer-reviewed, government-approved” road map for removing the X-Press Pearl and the stray containers on the ocean floor, saying they constitute the most immediate risk of pollution.

“This plan needs to be developed now so that when the conditions allow, the ship can be removed and properly decommissioned,” said Partow.

Sri Lanka’s government is also pushing the ship’s owners and insurers to refloat the X-Press Pearl.

“The Sri Lankan government is deeply concerned about its environment and the livelihood of the vulnerable fishing communities,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “The foremost thing that the owners and salvors, caretakers and wreck removers have to do is remove the wreckage, underwater containers and debris as soon as possible.”

For Withanage, time is of the essence. “It is a business for them,” he said of the salvage company hired to raise the ship and the vessel’s owners. “But it is our environment. As long as the ship is there contamination is there.”

UNEP will deliver a final report on the disaster to Sri Lanka’s government next week. It will contain recommendations for the clean-up and suggestions for how Sri Lanka, a country vying to become a major shipping hub, can handle future maritime disasters. Partow said UNEP will also stand by to advise Sri Lanka on longer-term environmental monitoring.

Ghostly scene

Today, the ship sits largely submerged in 21 metres of water, its castle and a few charred cranes poking up over the waves. A caretaker ship circles it 24 hours a day, keeping tabs on the oil leak.

Partow, who toured the wreck by boat and in a helicopter, saw plastic pellets mixed with oil bobbing in the waves around the vessel. Brown patches of oil surrounded by a grey sheen stretched two to three kilometres out into the sea.

He described the 186-metre-long ship, which entered service in February, as a “write off.”

Thummarukudyil has spent 18 years responding to oil spills around the world. When asked if the X-Press Pearl was the worst maritime ecological disaster he’d seen, he paused.

“There are lots of chemicals still sitting there,” he said. “This story is not yet over.”

UN Environment

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Economy2 hours ago

US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine...

EU Politics4 hours ago

Commission proposes draft mandate for negotiations on Gibraltar

The European Commission has today adopted a Recommendation for a Council decision authorising the opening of negotiations for an EU-UK...

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South Asia6 hours ago

Why France holds the key to India’s Multilateral Ambitions

Authors: Prof. Nidhi Piplani Kapur and K.A. Dhananjay As Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla pitches for permanent membership and reforms...

Americas8 hours ago

As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich* In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala,...

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Reports14 hours ago

Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination....

Energy News18 hours ago

IRENA Outlines Action Agenda on Offshore Renewables for G20

Boosting offshore renewables will accelerate the energy transition and allow G20 countries to build a resilient and sustainable energy system,...

EU Politics20 hours ago

Commission overhauls anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism rules

The European Commission has today presented an ambitious package of legislative proposals to strengthen the EU’s anti-money laundering and countering...

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