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Environmental Investigation Agency, UK and CEJ, Sri Lanka jointly lobby IMO over its inaction after  X-Press Pearl disaster

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By Ifham Nizam

Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), UK in partnership with the Centre for Environmental Justice – CEJ, Sri Lanka backs the Sri Lankan outline of a myriad of ways the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is failing to look after the environment by putting the interests of the shipping industry first.

The Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) and environmental NGOs yesterday demanded that IMO provide a new classification of hazardous substances after devastating X-Press Pearl plastic pellet spill nine miles off the Sri Lankan coast. On 25th May 2021 the Singapore-flagged cargo ship X-Press Pearl spilled 1,680 tonnes of plastic pellets, 9,700 tonnes of other plastics and toxic pollutants. With plastic accumulating on beaches up to a height of two metres, it marked the worst marine environmental disaster in the country’s history, and the single largest plastic pellet pollution event the world has ever seen.

The event follows similar incidents in Hong Kong (2012), South Africa (2017 and 2020) and in the North Sea (2019, 2020).

EIA, on behalf of the NGOs in the Clean Shipping Coalition, will be putting pressure on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) at their November meeting, demanding more than the few minutes allotted to acknowledge the gravity of the X-Press Pearl disaster, debate the classification of plastic pellets and outlining the lack of action taken to date on plastics.

 Christina Dixon, Deputy Ocean Campaign Leader of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) yesterday said:

“Although plastics from sea-based sources account for roughly 20% of plastic pollution, the pace of action to prevent plastic pollution from ships at the international level is sorely lacking.

“The recent tragedy of the X-Press Pearl in Sri Lanka is a devastating example of the impact of a lack of oversight and preventative measures. With fishing communities and marine habitats now devastated by billions of plastic pellets polluting their environment, it is the local communities left bearing the brunt of the clean-up and harm.”

IMO recognizes plastic waste in our ocean as their responsibility but is failing to live by their words. Despite the need for urgent action to protect marine ecosystems, livelihoods and coastlines the issue is slipping through the net.

“We expect to be given just a couple of minutes at the meeting to cover what has been the worst plastic pellet spill in history. The IMO principally looks after the interests of the shipping industry, but it cannot continue to do so without protecting our marine environment in parallel. It is of paramount importance they move immediately to reclassify plastic pellets as a hazardous substance on the request of Sri Lanka; a country who through zero fault of their own, will be struggling in the wake of this disaster for years to come.”

Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice Hemantha Withanage said:  “Immediately after the X-Press Pearl ship accident, more than 20,000 fishermen were disallowed from fishing in the area and have lost access to their livelihood up to now. Many fish and other marine animals including 417 turtles, 46 Dolphins and 8 whales were found dead. Some of them had mistakenly eaten micro plastics as food. Most of these plastic nurdles will remain in the ocean environment for the next 500 years or more. Ship owners and the insurance company P&I club must take full responsibility for the damage caused. Furthermore, it’s time to regulate unsafe transportation of large quantities of plastic nurdles.”



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SL defenceless, warn experts

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New COVID variants

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Due to the lax testing at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), there is a strong possibility that any new variant of COVID-19 entering the country, College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President, Ravi Kumudesh told The Island yesterday commenting on the detection of a new coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa.

Even a travel ban would be useless unless the country enhances its testing and surveillance capacities, Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh said that PCR tests were not conducted on passengers on arrival and that it was likely that even those not fully vaccinated were entering the country. “Gene sequencing in respect of those infected with COVID inside the country was at a minimal level, and therefore, there is no way we can find out whether a new variant has entered the country until it is too late.

“There are two state-of-the-art labs in the BIA but no tests are done there. We are not ready, at all. Several nations are imposing travel bans on travellers from South Africa and the region. Perhaps, we should follow suit. However, the fact that we don’t test those coming in means that even a travel ban might be useless,” he said.

Kumudesh added that the number of PCR tests conducted had dropped to such a low level that reagents used in some labs for PCR testing are now nearing the expiry dates. The attitude of health officials at the airport is such that everyone operates on the basis that testing of passengers is not important.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya yesterday said the detection of the new South African variant was potentially very bad news for all countries, and certainly for Sri Lanka.

“We still don’t have sufficient data on this, but I am very worried. It was only discovered a few days ago, but the scanty evidence strongly indicates that this new variant is driving a rapid increase in infections in S Africa. Only 100 cases have been confirmed officially, but reports indicate it may be 90% of new cases since Wed in Johannusburg,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said that his best guess was that three out of four South Africans had been infected by COVID during the pandemic. Thus, a large number of them had acquired natural immunity. Moreover, 25% of others have been vaccinated.

“So this rapid spread despite a lot of immunity is very disturbing. This really points to this new variant—B1.1.529—being both more infectious and also significantly immune resistant. Something that also matches with its particular mutations,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said he was not surprised at the emergence of the new variant because contrary to many experts who drink the kool-aid, there is no scientific basis to think SARS-CoV-2 had matured in its evolution. It might still have a lot of potential to evolve greater immune evasion and virulence, and that we should act on that basis.

“Second, because most of the world is following the misguided strategy of just accepting the virus (hey you – USA, UK, Sri Lanka…), the virus has plenty of chances to keep on mutating more because the truth is more of the virus is circulating than ever before. Third, despite a lot of nonsense about how T-cell immunity is going to protect us, there’s really no evidence that either infection or current vaccines and boosters will ever give us long-lasting immunity. We simply don’t know.”

Countries like South Africa, Peru, etc., who had such high levels of infection that much of their population was infected more than once, still continue to suffer new waves of infection.

“So this is bad news for all of us humans on planet earth, but very definitely for us in Sri Lanka. Why? Because based on how our medical establishment and govt authorities think, we will be slow or refuse to put the necessary border controls in to prevent this entering. And when it does enter-which is inevitable if this variant spreads globally–we will be slow to detect its entry, we will refuse to sound the alarm, and we will do everything but actually attempt to stop it. That’s been our track record, so why would it change? Worth noting that if this starts a new wave in Southern Africa, it’s just three to four months after their third wave. So just as immunity starts waning appreciably from natural infection (or vaccines). That gives us a strong hint of what our future holds unless we end this pandemic.”

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Navy deploys lagoon craft at Kurinchankerny until construction of new bridge

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Residents waiting for the boat

Sri Lanka Navy began providing transport facilities at the Kurinchankerny lagoon following the recent tragedy that claimed several lives. This service will continue until the construction of a new bridge at Kurinchankerny, Kinniya in Trincomalee is completed.

This initiative was set in motion following the directives of Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne. The Navy deployed a Lagoon Craft, capable of carrying 25 passengers safely at a time from Thursday (25) under the supervision of the Eastern Naval Command. The lagoon craft will be in service from 7.00 a.m. to 8.00 a.m. and from 12.00 noon to 2.00 p.m. each day. Further, the Navy erected a temporary jetty to allow passengers to board the vessel safely.

A schoolgirl on her way to the ferry
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UN Assistant Secretary General during talks with President pledges to work closely with Sri Lanka

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The United Nations will always work closely with Sri Lanka, said Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary General for Political, Peacebuilding and Peace Operations. Khiari made these remarks when he met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat, on Thursday (25).

UN Assistant Secretary General Khiari is visiting Sri Lanka as a follow-up to the bilateral meeting with the President and the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres held in September this year on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. Khiari conveyed the best wishes of UN Secretary-General Guterres to President Rajapaksa and said that the UN is willing to engage in a constructive and positive engagement with Sri Lanka.

Expressing satisfaction over the President’s affection and interest in the environment, the Assistant Secretary General appreciated Sri Lanka’s commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The President explained that steps are being taken to plant 100,000 mangroves with the assistance of the Navy and actions are being taken to prevent climate change through environmental conservation programmes.

President Rajapaksa expressed gratitude to the UN agencies and donors that have assisted Sri Lanka through the COVAX facility to make the vaccination drive successful and in facing other challenges in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The President pointed out that the government’s development programme implemented in the North and East after the end of the war in 2009 had brought about rapid development. The President recalled his invitation made while participating in the UN General Assembly to the diaspora to work together with all communities after visiting Sri Lanka. The President said that he hoped that the invitation would be met with positive initiatives.

The two sides exchanged views on unity and relations between communities. An environment where all communities can live freely has been made available in Sri Lanka. The President pointed out that the Minister of Justice is from the Muslim community, the Attorney General is from the Tamil community and many of those holding other key posts are of different communities. President Rajapaksa said the government has undertaken a great task in building unity among the communities and therefore, no one should have any doubt in this regard.

Both sides were of the view that education was fundamental to unity among the communities. President Rajapaksa said that the process by which South Africa has been able to end apartheid and move forward will be studied and the lessons that can be learned from it and what can be implemented will be looked into. The President also expressed hope that the United Nations will provide assistance in this regard.

Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, and Political Officer at the UN Peace Operations Department’s Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Department Chiaki Ota were also present.

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