Oil, acid, plastic: Inside the shipping disaster gripping Sri Lanka
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
A liveable future for all is possible, if we take urgent climate action
A major UN “report of reports” from the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), outlines the many options that can be taken now, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change.The study, “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report”, released on Monday following a week-long IPCC session in Interlaken, brings into sharp focus the losses and damages experienced now, and expected to continue into the future, which are hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard.
Temperatures have already risen to 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a consequence of more than a century of burning fossil fuels, as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use. This has resulted in more frequent and intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.
Climate-driven food and water insecurity is expected to grow with increased warming: when the risks combine with other adverse events, such as pandemics or conflicts, they become even more difficult to manage.
Time is short, but there is a clear path forward
If temperatures are to be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, deep, rapid, and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed in all sectors this decade, the reports states. Emissions need to go down now, and be cut by almost half by 2030, if this goal has any chance of being achieved.
The solution proposed by the IPCC is “climate resilient development,” which involves integrating measures to adapt to climate change with actions to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide wider benefits.
Examples include access to clean energy, low-carbon electrification, the promotion of zero and low carbon transport, and improved air quality: the economic benefits for people’s health from air quality improvements alone would be roughly the same, or possibly even larger, than the costs of reducing or avoiding emissions
“The greatest gains in wellbeing could come from prioritizing climate risk reduction for low-income and marginalized communities, including people living in informal settlements,” said Christopher Trisos, one of the report’s authors. “Accelerated climate action will only come about if there is a many-fold increase in finance. Insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress.”
Governments are key
The power of governments to reduce barriers to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, through public funding and clear signals to investors, and scaling up tried and tested policy measures, is emphasized in the report.
Changes in the food sector, electricity, transport, industry, buildings, and land-use are highlighted as important ways to cut emissions, as well as moves to low-carbon lifestyles, which would improve health and wellbeing.
“Transformational changes are more likely to succeed where there is trust, where everyone works together to prioritize risk reduction, and where benefits and burdens are shared equitably,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee.
“This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”
UN chief announces plan to speed up progress
In a video message released on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the report as a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb.”
Climate action is needed on all fronts: “everything, everywhere, all at once,” he declared, in a reference to this year’s Best Film Academy Award winner.
The UN chief has proposed to the G20 group of highly developed economies a “Climate Solidarity Pact,” in which all big emitters would make extra efforts to cut emissions, and wealthier countries would mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies in a common effort to ensure that global temperatures do not rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Mr. Guterres announced that he is presenting a plan to boost efforts to achieve the Pact through an Acceleration Agenda, which involves leaders of developed countries committing to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2040, and developing countries as close as possible to 2050.
The Agenda calls for an end to coal, net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and 2040 for the rest of the world, and a stop to all licensing or funding of new oil and gas, and any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.
These measures, continued Mr. Guterres, must accompany safeguards for the most vulnerable communities, scaling up finance and capacities for adaptation and loss and damage, and promoting reforms to ensure Multilateral Development Banks provide more grants and loans, and fully mobilize private finance.
Looking ahead to the upcoming UN climate conference, due to be held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December, Mr. Guterres said that he expects all G20 leaders to have committed to ambitious new economy-wide nationally determined contributions encompassing all greenhouse gases, and indicating their absolute emissions cuts targets for 2035 and 2040.
Journey to net-zero ‘picks up pace’
Achim Steiner, Administrator, of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) pointed to signs that the journey to net-zero is picking up pace as the world looks to the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference or COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.
“That includes the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., described ‘the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis’ and the European Union’s latest Green Deal Industrial Plan, a strategy to make the bloc the home of clean technology and green jobs,” he said.
“Now is the time for an era of co-investment in bold solutions. As the narrow window of opportunity to stop climate change rapidly closes, the choices that governments, the private sector, and communities now make — or do not make – will go down in history.”
A Treaty to Preserve Oceans – And Our World
There is cause for celebration in our climatically distressed world for a treaty of historic proportions has been signed by the UN member states. It is the culmination of 15 years of talks and discussions.
Vital to the preservation of 30 percent of our earth, i.e. land and ocean, the oceans treaty broke many political barriers. The EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius applauded the event saying it was a crucial step towards preserving marine life and its essential biodiversity for generations to come.
The UN Secretary General commended the delegates, his spokesperson calling the agreement a “victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing oceanhealth, now and for generations to come.”
The real problem is the oceans belong to no one — and thus available to everyone — because the exclusive economic zones of countries end beyond 200 nautical miles (370 kms) from their coastlines.
These high seas are threatened by overfishing, man-made pollution including damaging plastics, and also climate change. People are unaware that oceans create half the oxygen we breathe, and help in containing global warming by absorbing the carbon dioxide released by human activities — one can think of all the coal and wood fires, particularly in developing countries, and the coal-fired power stations everywhere among other uses of fossil fuels.
The fact is we have to value the environment that nurtures us for the consequences of our disregard can in the final analysis destroy life itself. As it stands, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports in its 2022 Living Planet Index a 69 percent decrease in monitored populations since 1970, a mere half century. Their data analyzed 32,000 species.
As the apex species, such a loss forces humans to assume responsibility. It rests on each and everyone of us from individuals to governments to corporate entities, and across the spectrum of human activity.
The treaty furnishes legal tools to assist in creating protected areas for marine life; it also requires environmental assessments for intended commercial activity … like deep sea mining for example. The nearly 200 countries involved also signed a pledge to share ocean resources. All in all, it has been a triumph of common sense over the individual greed of people and nations.
So it is that the treaty has made possible the 30×30 target, namely, to protect 30 percent of oceans by 2030. Now comes the hard work of organizing the protection. Who will police the areas? Who will pay for it?
Environmental Crisis in South Asian Countries
During thetwenty-first century, South Asian countries have been facing and dealing with enormous problems. But the environmental crisis is one of the major and most emerging issues. South Asia is the southern part of the continent Asia, which is also known as the Asian societies. Mainly consist of eight countries India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sir Lanka, and Bangladesh. Most of the environmental problem has been started after the 1960s due to high economic activities, population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and poverty. The combined effects of all these factors caused the situation more complex because of less management of negative and deviant behavior in economic activities. South Asian countries are the developing region that mainly constitutes middle-income countries struggling to flourish their economies and to cope with challenges of political and environmental sustainability, although they are still yet facing many environmental crises which are highly interactive, interlinked with human activities and also human life which it is the need of the hour to be addressed.
Population Density and Population Pressure
Population growth is one of the major elements which play an important role in environmental crises. As all the South Asian developing countries have an extensive density of populations such as India which considers the world second most populated country after China, because the growing population in all South Asian countries, it’s put tremendous population strain on natural and environmental resources such as increase the extraction of resources from the environment influence negatively in our environment. The Intergovernmental Panel Discussion (IPCC) on climate change says that most of the environmental crises are attributed to human activities. The population of Pakistan is also increasing at the rate of 1.9 % annual changes and the population of other South Asian countries is also not up to the mark, but increasing day by day which adversely affects the economy and the natural setting of the environment.
Climate change is also a major problem. South Asian developing counties are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters. The history of Pakistan, and Bangladesh showed how much they suffered due to climate flood disasters. Pakistan and India are facing the brunt of extreme weather almost every year. Being affected by environmental problems severely influence economic activities in the summer of 2022 due to “Heat Waves” in India and Pakistan, “Flood Crisis” in Pakistan last year affected the largest region about one–third of the whole country. Melting glaciers in Pakistan, almost twenty glacier bodies in Nepal, and twenty-five in Bhutan are so unsafe glacial water bodies. Land erosion in India, and Nepal land erosion, and land sliding. With rising sea levels in Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan it is expected that by 2050 most of them swallowed by the sea. This climate condition is not new for this region, according to the World Bank Report 750 million people across South Asian societies are impacted by the last almost 20 years. In Afghanistan, farmers face climate-induced drought, and nearly 19 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves and almost 5 million people across India and Bangladesh. According to the climate change risk index Bangladesh and Pakistan ranked sixth and seventh while India ranked fourth among them respectively. A recent report of intergovernmental on climate change called “Code Red for Humanity” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, it is predicted that in the next two decades, global warming will increase up to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Almost all Asian societies adversely face the problem of pollution associated with indoor and outdoor elements which may be the source of pollution. With the increase of demographic pressure and urbanization, pollution is also considered a vital concern in South Asian countries. Due to industrialization, transportation, burning of coal, and biomass, excessive use of metals, and soil depletion of natural resources and minerals merely falls under the category of pollution. According to the report of the Air Quality Life Index Pakistan is the fourth most pollution-causing country in the world and India is the second most polluted country in the world and number one in Bangladesh. Excess methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and insoluble and soluble materials emitted by vehicles and industries are harmful effects on humans such as lung cancer, asthma, and water-borne diseases. It badly influences plants and animals.
Water scarcity is a major concern in almost every region. South Asian countries have become water-default regions due to population exploitation, and unplanned urbanization. Almost 90- 95 of water is consumed by agriculture and industries, and there is insufficient storage and a wasteful irrigation method. Per capita, water availability is less than the world average and 4.5% of freshwater resources availability. Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan face varying degrees of water scarcity. Groundwater depletion caused by irrigation, agriculture runoff, industries, and the unregulated release of sewage needs a major concern. Along with scarcity of water quality and quantity, both are also affected by the reduction in the quantity of water because of the recession of glaciers and disruption in the monsoon.
Furthermore, global warming is also a main issue that is observed globally it is specifically due to human activities primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, and petroleum, fire burning, and along with the emission of harmful gases. South Asian countries are the major source of carbon dioxide, so it is a crucial component in global warming. However many South Asian countries implement a tax on the use of carbon-related components, a form of small fiscal policy to reduce the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.
In addition to all these South Asia approximately uses only 5.9 % of global energy resources excluding the non- commercial energy resources. South Asian counties have increased the demand for energy in the last few decades, increasing demand by up to 50% since 2000. The rising energy demand is induced by population growth and the manufacturing sector. All the south Asian countries have increased the demand for electricity on average by more than five percent annually over the past two decades and are expected for the future that requires more than double by 2050. More than two third of the energy is imported. So it put pressure to increase cost recovery if the demand increase. In South Asia, disruptions due to conflict among other countries adversely impact fuel imports and put greater pressure on the government to ensure the security of their energy supply.
South Asian countries are major part and contributors to the world economy. Due to the crisis, economic activities were destroyed and diminished in many regions, because of damage to productivity and infrastructure, security threats, and mass migration, as the results growth rate declined and the world economy gets affected. Globally, all the economies of the world somehow depend upon each other for trade. To facilitate this connection it is necessary to maintain a balance. There are many organizations are working in South Asian countries to control the environmental crisis, such as the intergovernmental organization of South Asia Co-operative Environment Program (SACEP). Climate Action Network of South Asia, South Asian form for the environment. So the main purpose of all these organizations is to provide support, protection, and management in context to contribute in terms of sustainable development, along with issues of economic and social development. In addition to all these, urgent action is needed to curb all the challenges. The most immediate and pragmatic step to cope with the challenges is to make a collective UN committee for collaboration among the countries, reduce the global emission of harmful gases, decarbonize the energy sector, educate people to spread awareness among people start campaigns related to the protection of environmental at county level, uses of renewable resources, new policy initiation, formulation, and Implementation.
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