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‘Place of refuge’ – the international debate



By Capt. Ranjith Weerasinghe

Ships are built to conform to highest safety standards under the guidelines of the International Maritime Organisations (IMO). The stringent regulatory regime is further reinforced by the latest technology in modern day ships in ship design, building, operations, maintenance, management and competency of crew. However, there will always be ships in distress, regardless of what stringent regulatory regimes are followed as has been the case ever since man took to water transportation even before the invention of the wheel. When a ship is in distress, absolutely helpless at sea, help is inevitably sought by the ship’s captain. A distressed vessel struggles to get to the nearest coastal state for a place of refuge, and the denial of entry can lead to disaster. If a ship’s captain requested assistance in case of a peril at sea, and all the ports in the world decides not to take the ship to a place of refuge, what would the world expect the ships’ crew to do?

Historically and traditionally, ships in distress have been given whatever help by vessels in the vicinity and the coastal states authorities when they happen to be in coastal waters. Help includes providing a sheltered place to manage the problem, to prevent it from further deterioration, assist the crew, provide repair facility, transfer cargo, firefighting, salvage, towage, or assistance to save lives and property and protect the environment. But with notable oil tanker disasters resulting in unprecedented environment pollution incidents, by mid 70s, the coastal states became more concerned about granting place of refuge to vessels in distress in danger of fire, explosion, grounding, sinking, etc,. As a result, there is an ongoing international debate and a proposal for introducing an international law to grant ‘place of refuge”. This debate received international attention in early 2000 when several incidents took place due to the “refusal or denial of place of refuge”. One was Motor Tanker Erika in Dec 1999; it broke in two and sank off the coast of France and the other was MT Prestige in 2002, which broke up and sank off the coast of Spain; both vessels had been denied place of refuge and they caused extensive environmental damage. Similarly, a tanker named MT Castor with a structural failure could not find a place of refuge and was towed around in the Mediterranean Sea for more than a month. Finally, the Salvors removed the cargo oil at sea by ships to ship transfer and saved the vessel.

Against this backdrop, there was a compelling need for IMO to seek an agreement amongst member states to make a law with respect to “place of refuge”. Up to date it has not materialised due to concerns of coastal states. Short of such an agreement, the best the IMO could do was to adopt two resolutions in 2003, and they relate to vessels in distress or needing assistance:

1. A949 (23);

Intended for use when a vessel is in distress and cannot be left in the place without moving to safety

2. A950 (23)

Requiring all coastal states to establish a Maritime Assistance Service.



Besides oil tanker fires, in recent times there have been fires on board container ships. The international insurance industry says one container ship fire occurs every two weeks somewhere in the world. In recent times, container ships MSC Flaminia, Maersk Honam, and Yantian Express suffered heavy damage and loss of life due to fire, and a long time was taken to find a place of refuge for it to discharge the cargo. A fire on board a container vessel is first a risk to the seafarers and the environment and secondly entails a very heavy economic cost–first, the cost of firefighting, salvage, towage and damage to the ship and cargo, and secondly, the cost of the ‘cargo related business interruptions’, which affects industries dependent on ‘just-in-time’ logistics.

Although there has been no instance of denial of ‘place of refuge’ in Sri Lanka, ships passing through its territorial waters are always in probable, unintended “place of refuge”. We also have had a few incidents of vessels in distress off our coast over the years. Whether we offer a place of refuge or not, as a coastal state, we have an obligation to be prepared to assist any distressed vessel. Such preparedness is critical and essential not only in view of the assistance sought by the vessels in trouble but also to avert probable environmental disasters that follow if the timely and effective assistance is not provided. In the said international context, Sri Lanka’s emergency preparedness for such contingencies is to be examined in response to MAS 950(23) Resolution.

The case of the fire-stricken X-Press Pearl at Colombo anchorage and the fire on board MT New Diamond tanker off the East coast of Sri Lanka provide lessons. In both cases it was so sad to see two marvelous ships being engulfed in a fire for days and the crew members suffering injury. Fortunately, New Diamond with 300,000MT crude oil did not lead to an environment disaster. But X-Press Pearl did.

In the case of X-Press Pearl, the following have been reported in the media:

Long before the vessel arrived in Sri Lanka its crew had noticed an acid leak from a container after leaving Jebel Ali in the UAE for Hamad in Qatar. In Hamad, the ship’s captain requested the discharge of the container, but his request was turned down.


Leaving the Hamad port, the Captain asked the ship owners to arrange for return to Jebel Ali to discharge the container, but the owners thought such action was not necessary as arrangements were expected at next port Hazira in Gujarat. The Port of Hazira refused to discharge the container at issue. Finally, the vessel arrived in Colombo as the next scheduled port and not as ‘a port of refuge’.

Some of the questions that Sri Lanka should ask in general are as follows;

In the case of vessel requesting a ‘a place of Refuge’, do we have an evaluation mechanism to make right conclusions? Do we have a well thought-out emergency response plan in place?

In the case of vessel needing assistance, are we ready to honour our international obligations to provide assistance as regards fires, imminent danger of grounding or sinking, preventing actual or probable environmental disasters, salvage and towage, calls for urgent medical emergencies.

While promoting Sri Lanka as a ‘maritime hub’, have we given serious thought to these aspects.

As for the X-PRESS PEARL incident, we should examine the following:

At the time the X-Press Pearl reported a presence of Nitric acid leaking container, and subsequently signs of fire inside container, did the authorities concerned carry out any assessment and evaluation with a view to taking necessary action?

Did the authorities have the information about the cargo on board the distressed ship—argo manifest and stowage plan – reference bay plan)?

Did the fire erupt in the container with 25MT of Nitric acid, which by nature is not flammable by itself but a highly corrosive oxidant in the Class 8 in the “International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code” (IMDG Code); if it leaks into other combustible materials, that can catch fire and become explosive.

If the Captain of the vessel had reported that the particular container identified from cargo manifest with nitric acid was leaking and there was a yellow fume, what should have been the evaluation? For example, in India, dangerous cargo cannot be handled without the approval of the DG Shipping as the highest state official of the sector, but in Sri Lanka it is left to the Ports Authority to take the relevant action

The vessel arrived at the Colombo Anchorage in early hours of 20 May 2021, and for two three days a yellow smoke had been emanating from the ship, according to media reports. Nitric acid must have leaked and mixed with something else, causing the fire.

If it is true that the issue was initially confined to that particular container with a manageable nitric acid leak, what prevented the SLPA from taking action to berth the nearly brand new vessel on priority basis and remove the container without waiting for her scheduled berthing slot? If we lack facilities to do so, we have to acquire them. If not, ships will face disasters for no fault of theirs as no ship crew or master inspects the stowage of cargo inside a container; it is left in the hands of shore authorities.



As for MT New Diamond, when the incident took place about 20 miles off East Coast of Sri Lanka, with 300,000 MT of crude oil, we realised a few shortcomings, but do not seem to have learnt any lessons as can be seen from the following among others:

* Absence of a “responsible authority” prescribed by Merchant Shipping Act to take charge of the situation in the event of any maritime emergency

* Absence of an effective Emergency Response Plan,

* Absence of defined roles for DGMS, MEPA, SL NAVY, SLPA, NARA, etc.,

* Absence of Defined Emergency Facilities from other agencies such as Airports, Customs, Immigration, local government authorities, etc.,

* Absence of proper and sufficient facilities for such emergency response.

(Notably we did not have firefighting capability, especially with large volume high expansion foam system with high pressure pump that could be fitted on a tug with storage of at least 100 CBM foam in 1CBM Intermediate Bulk tanks that can be loaded on to supporting vessels).

* Lack of trained salvage team and equipment at the disposal of the responsible authority

* Non-availability of a mechanism to mobilise enlisted supporting vessels, equipment and personnel.

* Absence of a responsible communication mechanism

* Lack of rewarding structure for all involved in the rescue effort


Most of all, action must be taken to enhance the reputation of the country as a capable maritime nation which in turn helps the Sri Lankan maritime industry.

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Record breakers in a Covid disaster



Sri Lanka has certainly scored another world record.

Just look at the number of vehicles on the streets every day at a time when the country is in a lockdown. The Police Spokesman is pleased to tell us how many thousand vehicles were on the streets each day. They have moved to the pasting of stickers – from a single sticker to different coloured stickers to give different messages, and then to stop all stickers!

Just think about how the streets of all major cities were virtually empty when lockdowns took place in other countries, when the Covid pandemic began spreading. We are not like that. Why should we take examples from other countries – East or West? We must have our own traditions, with our Presidential Task Forces to handle Covid-19 and the Economy, and a celebration uniformed Army Commander to give us contradictory messages.

Sri Lanka is truly proud of having more vehicles on our streets than any other country amidst a Covid pandemic lockdown. Who will ever break such a record?

This is certainly in keeping with that other huge record of having 25 violations of the Constitution in the Bill to establish the Port City Economic Commission. Who would get the prize for this record – the Legal Draftsman and/or the former Attorney General, or either or both of them and the Minister of Justice?  The Podujana Peremuna must be planning a special prize day to celebrate this.

The Media people in the President’s Office must be having a special delight in telling us matters that are wrong and uncertain about foreign responses to requests by the President. Can we forget how the WHO contradicted the report that the Sinopharm vaccine had been approved soon after the request made by our President?

We have another such situation now. Japan has refused to confirm reports that it is considering giving Sri Lanka 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The President’s Media Division reported this week that Japan was considering a request from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. This request had been made by President Rajapaksa to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

What the Japanese Embassy had told the local media was that Japan will allocate around 30 million doses of vaccines manufactured in Japan to other countries and regions, including through the COVAX Facility.

Is this another record for the President’s Media Division?

The six lakhs of Sri Lankans who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, must keep hoping against hope, about getting the next dose. Looks like even the President or his office cannot do much to get those vaccines.

All of this uncertainty is in the midst of the supposedly unavailable AstraZeneca vaccines being used with other Chinese or Russian vaccines in the vaccine exercises in many parts of the country. The 600,000 plus citizens waiting for AstraZeneca must be thinking if they can form a Citizens Vaccine Trade Union, like the GMOA, to get the vaccines to themselves, as well as members of their families, friends, relations and catcher’s too.

While on the subject of vaccines, it is interesting to read that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, so thoughtful of the people and their needs, has instructed the officials to order a batch of vaccine for a third dose, taking the ongoing global situation into account and based on the recommendations by the medical experts.

He is said to be following the pattern of leading countries that have already ordered vaccines for the third dose. This is great. Ensure a third dose is ordered, while we are not sure what will be done about the missing 600,000 plus of the much-needed AstraZeneca.

Are we moving to a Third-Dose record?

Is this not the time to make a special request to the US to get the vaccines we urgently need, from the vaccines that President Biden has announced will be given to the world? Or from the other millions that the G7 countries will soon give to the world? Have we gone too close to China to make such a request from the western world? Is this moving away from the Cheena Saubhagyaya that is the motto of Rajapaksa Rule?

We are now told that the lockdown will be lifted from June 14, with new rules to be introduced. Let’s see what these new rules are. Will they help to bring down the rates of infection from Covid-19? Will it help bring down the deaths from this pandemic? How many more people will be infected, taken ill with all symptoms and die at home, or while being admitted to hospital, as the records keep showing?

We are now in the midst of increasing tragedies bringing alarm to the minds of the people, whatever the planners of the lockdowns or its relaxations may be thinking. 

We are also in the midst of contradictory quarantine rules imposed by the Police. The people, including two foreigners, who had a party at the rooftop of a Colombo building, have been ordered to quarantine at home. But the beauty and cosmetics names and models who were partying at the Shangri-La Hotel, were sent to a special guesthouse far away from home, with plenty of good food too, to spend their quarantine. Looks like we are dealing with a double-angled Police. Or, could the Police be even triple-angled seeing how they have been enjoying the huge traffic amidst a lockdown, and looking on as politicos and agents send their catchers to beat the public at vaccination centres.

This is the land of the record breakers in lockdown travel and the misuse of Covid vaccinations. Will we soon have new records on the Covid infected and deceased, possibly even beating India in under reporting of Covid tragedies?

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Luxury cars for MPs; floods, disease and death for electors



Never has Cassandra been so downcast and heart-sick. It certainly is not what she terms lockdown fatigue like metal fatigue that was identified after parts of planes just snapped off. This was long ago. Now in the third week of lockdown, we could break under the stress of being shut in but we Ordinaries are made of sterner stuff. We have our support system – friends and relatives whom we keep close in touch with via telephone and electronic media. We have our safety net – our several religions. Speaking as a Buddhist, Cass can vouch for the strength of this safety net and how beneficial it is. Just being mindful most of her waking hours she keeps away depression and a sinking of her heart each time she reads news on-line or sees TV news broadcasts. If meditation is attempted it is even more efficacious. Mercifully Cass and her ilk order veggies, fruit and groceries on-line. Most certainly bare essentials in consideration of those many near starvation. We are totally sorrowful about the plight of daily wage earners, but cannot right wrongs such as poverty and impecuniousness of the less well to do. That is what governments are elected to achieve.

Reasons for deflation of spirits

We are battered and bruised by the pandemic; inundated by incessant rain and floods, some suffering landslides too. And we had an acid leaking ship sneaking to our waters, catching fire, and being made welcome as a money earner through claimed damages. Now we are told marine pollution will last a hundred years. Can you imagine that – our beautiful blue seas with shining sand now a death dealing home to marine life? Turtles have been washed ashore, dead. Dr Anoja Perera in her heartfelt speech in which she let the present leaders have it, said that the nitric acid that leaked into the sea will destroy even the cartilaginous bones of fish. Their gills have been suffocated by plastic pellets let loose from the burning ship. In all the debris there is a stinking rat or rats too – rousing suspicion. The Sri Lankan Agent of the parent company that owns the ship has proved himself elusive; secrecy reeks. MPS and Ministers who claimed SL would be rich with compensating dollars are sure to lose their parliamentary seats next time around, of course that is if the Sri Lankan indigenous malaise of short memories does not afflict us four years hence and we vote the same rotters in to govern us.

Those who are card holders testifying they received the first A-Z shot in February/March are in the blues wondering when the second jab of A-Z will be given to them. The US, thanks to Biden’s mercy, promised to include Sri Lanka in its list of beneficiaries to receive the A-Z vaccine from what it stockpiled. Prime Minister Wickremanayake’s daughter in England appealed to Boris Johnson to donate vaccines to us. Not only the government but even individuals have started begging for vaccines. We heard Mangala Samaraweera was another. Cass is surprised that fair play on the part of these rich countries supersedes the fact that we are obviously open-armed supplicants to the Chinese. Surprises Cass their mercy prompts then to help us. They hear the cry of the Ordinaries.


The final straw that breaks our spirit

Unbelievable, implausible, impossible such crude greed and feathering their own nests, this time not with money but with luxury cars. Cass did not believe it when she heard that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered a whole fleet of cars for MPs, not just ese mese vehicles but most luxurious and thus very, very expensive. Cass not realising such greed and injustice could prevail, especially at this very bad time for Sri Lanka, surmised the news of the Cabinet passing the proposal to import 399 luxury cars to be fake news. But it turned out to be true and nearly kicked the life out of Cass, she finding it difficult to breathe – not asthma or C19 but through sheer disbelief of such selfish, unthinking, gross act of importing cars for MPs and other favoured persons while the majority of Sri Lankans suffer and many near starve. I quote Shamindra Ferdinando in his article titled LCs opened before Cabinet rescinded its own decision in The Island of Wednesday June 9.

“In spite of the Finance Ministry decision to withdraw an earlier Cabinet paper for the import of 399 vehicles at a cost of Rs 3.7 bn, the cash-strapped government was not in a position to unilaterally cancel what Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella called a tripartite transaction. (Why did the govt place the order in the first place, Cass asks).

The Island yesterday (8) sought an explanation from Minister Rambukwella regarding the status of the high profile leasing arrangement pertaining to 399 vehicles. Minister Rambukwella said that he was not aware of how the state bank that had opened the Letters of Credit handled the issue at hand. However, as the opening of Letters of Credit meant guaranteed payment, Sri Lanka faced the prospect of being blacklisted if a unilateral decision was taken on the matter. The minister explained the difficulty in reversing the original decision.”(Fine howdy)

Later in Ferdinando’s article is this even more damning statement which really hits us a second whammy.  “None of the Opposition political parties have criticised the government move on vehicles made at a time the country was struggling to cope with Covid-19 fallout.

“SLPP’s 2019 presidential election manifesto, too, assured that vehicles wouldn’t be imported for members of parliament for a period of three years.”

“After the change of government in 2019, the SLPP put in place a much-touted project to expedite repairs to state-owned vehicles as part of the overall measures to meet what co-cabinet spokesmen Ministers Rambukwella, Udaya Gammanpila and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana called immediate shortfall.” (It all sucks!)

The roads are choc-a-block with posh cars which give the impression we are far from being Third World, but one that is rich, prosperous and with no short falls or poverty anywhere within it. When one sees those in the legislator convene for meetings at the old parliament building down Galle Face road, one is shocked at the luxuriousness of the vehicles that shed the VIPs – all local – from within. Are we a poor country, one asks. The sight of most of the alighting VIPs confirms that question – so well set are they: obese in simple language. Sri Lanka had no money to buy vaccines for its people and went begging hither and thither. But on the quiet the PM himself, approved by his Cabinet, orders 399 luxury cars. Are royal kids and pets to be given cars too? While the hard-working farmer cries, some with tears, for fertiliser; the village mother moans her husband dead from Covid 19 and all beg for inoculation. No wonder Kuveni’s spirit is active at present, and her curse is heard and experienced. We are cursed with totally unnecessary luxuries for some; inoculations given entire extended families and friends of those with clout; floods devastating the country; a sure forecast of a poor rice harvest and starvation staring us in the face; tea prices falling due to lack of needed fertiliser, caused by a sudden, stubborn, trigger decision to ban imported chemical fertiliers. Disease and death pile up because vaccination was not carried out en masse. This could have been done.

That is Free Sri Lanka of now, that once resplendent isle, touted to be like no other. Yes, it is unique in its mismanagement and obvious contrasts between those with political clout and us Ordinaries.


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How to gamble with floods



by Eng. Mahinda Panapitiya and

Eng. Wasantha Lal (PhD)

(Two residents from Attanagalu Oya Basin)


Flooding during heavy rains and water pollution during normal time in natural streams is a common problem all over the world when human settlements are located near flood prone areas. For example, about 7-10% land area, in the US, under human settlements, are prone to flooding. In ancient cultures, flooding was perceived as a blessing in disguise because it was the main transportation method of fertilisers, free of charge, for agriculture activities in temporary submergence areas called flood plains. After moving people into flood plains because of shortage of space for settlement, floods have become a curse for humans. Deciding to settle down in flood prone area is a gamble. However, there are modern technologies called flood modelling available for us to overcome this problem.


Flood Modelling

For an example, it is now possible to simulate different flood conditions that may arise due to heavy rains, before it actually occurs, using satellite and survey data. This is called “modelling” in engineering. Any area prone to floods can be modelled and divided into zones so that land users will know in advance how deep their lands will get submerged. This type of performance-based methods also evaluates how an existing or newly introduced flood mitigation effort, performs under different flooding events.

Hidden reasons behind frequent flooding and water pollution of natural streams

* Unplanned real estate development by clearing local tree cover resulting in impervious areas (roofs, carpeted roads, etc.,) prevents water infiltrating the soil. This increases the runoff rate, causing flash floods during heavy rains. On the other hand, during droughts, all the natural tributary streams and wells in those areas dry up soon after the rain. This is very common in basin such as the Attanagalu Oya.

* The obstruction of natural stream and their tributaries due to poor maintenance. This is very common along the Kelani River basin

* Illicit encroachment causes the filling of wetlands in the flood plains. As a result, rain water has no designated place to collect before flowing out gradually. Most of the floods in Gampaha, Ja-ela and Wattala are due to this issue.

* Deposition of sediments washed down from upland areas due to lack of tree cover and also the erosion of stream banks whose reservations are encroached on either for agriculture in rural areas or for settlement in urban areas

* Inadequate flow capacity in local streams due to invasive weed growth associated with polluted water and lack of riparian tree cover. (Wattala)

* Lack of awareness among officials who manage water resources in natural streams about the role of riverine environments in flood plains which act as kidneys in our ecosystem while preventing flash floods.


How the community could face these challenges

Those who are already living in flood-prone areas or are planning to do so should be aware of the different risk levels in the areas concerned. For that, there is a need to do an exercise called Flood Hazard Zoning, This approach is very common in the developed world. This exercise will also enhance the community participation for government intervention such as canal cleaning and discouraging further encroachment on flood plains by land fillings.


Available Technologies

A sketch above extracted from a technical guideline adapted in the US shows a typical flood zoning map, which could be used by a community to decide whether they should or should not build houses in a particular location.


For example, in this map, people who are in Zone A are in a high-risk area subject to flooding. Zone C is a low risk area. A person who wants to build a house in Zone A, which is designated as “100 Year Flood Zone”, will have a 26% chance his house being submerged once in 30 years, which is the normal bank lending period of a housing loan. For the next 70 years, which is the normal lifetime of a building, the chance of being flooded is 50%. For a person who wants to build a house in Zone B designated as “500 Year Flood Zone” will have 18% chance of his residence being submerged once in 70 years. By knowing in advance through these flood zoning maps, people themselves become aware of flood danger before it occurs and, therefore, they prepare themselves for the challenges during flood situations. When there is no such initial warnings, governments will have to bear the whole responsibility.

This type of mapping would also be a useful guide for land valuation as well as for insurances against flood risks. With flood zoning, flood insurance becomes an option that adds a financial component in designing buildings to address those future risks. For example, people can build their houses at elevated levels on columns to suit predicted flood levels. Also the sewerage systems can be introduced to suit the wetland environments.


Lessons from the US

Every state in the US is required by law (water policy) to demonstrate that (a) the public is protected from floods; (b) the public has sufficient water available for drinking and farmin, etc. (d) there is enough water to support the environment. Computer models simulating the year-round hydrology are used for the purpose. Those models show how water from the rains could be saved for use during the dry season. Government agencies in the US do not use the models currently in use in Sri Lanka. They have developed their own models to simulate flooding. Models used in Sri Lanka are bought primarily from two European countries. They are normally used only to study individual flood events. The fundamental ideas used in these models have not changed since 1980s in Sri Lanka, and these models are still sold primarily to developing countries like Sri Lanka. On the other hand, teams of senior engineers are employed for developing those models used in the US, before permits are issued for new development projects. There are also Sri Lankans engineers among those teams in the US, as primary developers.


Opposite of flood

Wetlands of flood plain are the interface between aquatic and terrestrial areas. Plants in those wetlands play a very vital role in cleaning water biologically before it falls into the main streams. Wetlands are in fact the kidneys of ecosystems. Over the years, due to the so-called development, the environmental features of flood plains have undergone changes, causing not only floods during heavy rains but also malfunctioning natural water cleaning process, especially during droughts.

Note that those new technologies address not only flood situations but also help face drought situations, too, by identifying areas suitable for temporary water storages within flood plains. For example, during a previous drought situation there was a water shortage in the Attanagalu Oya basin, and the people had to purchase water from trucks, though annually the Oya releases into the sea a volume of water equal to that of the Parakrama Samudraya! Severe drought situations are even worse than floods, especially in view of the current pollution levels of natural streams bordering urban areas. To address this issue also, technologies could be used to identify naturally available water cleaning wetlands to be preserved.

King Parakramabahu’s famous quote about water conservation and utilization—“Do not release even a drop of rain water to the sea without using”—applies not only to our dry zone but also to the west zone.

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