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The X-Press Pearl Disaster: From Flames to Prevention

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By Ruwan Samaraweera

Sri Lanka’s ecological disaster related to the MV X-Press Pearl, a container ship carrying hazardous chemicals that caught fire off its coast on 20th May 2021, is back in the news as the country attempts to claim damages. The ecological disaster washed up tons of plastic pellets and other pollutants on the country’s beaches and harmed its marine ecosystem.

It is a stark reminder of the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials and the urgent need for governments and companies to take proactive measures to prevent such disasters in the future. This blog revisits the environmental impact of the X-Press Pearl disaster and discusses how Sri Lanka can use the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) to develop strategies and policies to prevent similar disasters from happening near its shores again.

The Environmental and Economic Impacts of X-Press Pearl

The X-Press Pearl disaster has had a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s environment and its citizens. The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) reported an oil slick of an approximate area of 0.51 km2 with a length of 4.3 km around the wreck. According to the International Pollutants Elimination Network, the ship’s cargo included billions of plastic pellets (microplastics used to produce plastic) which have washed up on the shore, causing damage to the country’s marine ecosystem, tourism industry and its reputation as an eco-tourism destination. According to the International Maritime Hazardous Goods Regulation (IMDG regulation), an analysis of the cargo manifest revealed that at least 81 of the 1,486 containers aboard the MV X-Press were transporting 15 distinct categories of hazardous materials, including 25 tons of nitric acid. While the full extent of the damage is yet to be determined by the MEPA, the insurance company for the ship has already compensated the Sri Lankan government to the tune of USD 7.85 million.

Beyond the monetary valuation, the disaster has severely impacted Sri Lanka’s fishing industry, with over 20,000 fishing families and approximately 16,000 fishermen affected. Additionally, the spillage of hazardous chemicals into the sea has killed over 300 marine animals, including turtles, dolphins, and whales.

The disaster has also raised concerns about the impact of hazardous material transportation on the environment and public safety, highlighting the need for more stringent regulations, especially in densely populated areas. It also revealed institutional and capacity constraints and a lack of training in handling such emergencies, which should be addressed to prevent such disasters. This is where the SFDRR comes into play, providing a comprehensive framework to address these issues and build resilience in the face of such catastrophes.

The Way Forward: Preventing Future Maritime Disasters

The X-Press Pearl disaster is a wake-up call for governments and companies worldwide to take proactive measures to prevent similar disasters in the future. Since its inception in 2015, the SFDRR has become widely recognised for managing diverse disasters worldwide.

The Sendai Framework

Even though there are various frameworks and policies related to disaster risk reduction at the national level in Sri Lanka, including the National Disaster Management Plan, they were inadequate to address the X-Press Pearl disaster timely and effectively. Other countries use numerous measures like response and containment techniques, preparedness and planning, regulation and enforcement, international cooperation and collaboration. The SDFRR combines these individual efforts and brings them under an umbrella framework.

Hence, it offers a comprehensive framework that countries like Sri Lanka can adopt to address the challenges associated with hazardous material transportation and other maritime disaster risks. Moreover, while the adoption of the SFDRR is novel for preventing maritime disasters, it has been widely adopted by many countries, including but not limited to Japan (climate change, Tsunami, Fukushima nuclear disaster, etc.), Australia (wildfires), and Nepal (earthquakes). Therefore, the X-Press Pearl maritime disaster emphasises the potential for harnessing the SFDRR’s wide range of applicability to prevent future similar disasters in Sri Lanka.

Understanding the risks

The first step in preventing such disasters is understanding the risks of shipping hazardous materials through Sri Lanka’s waters. Sri Lanka did not have a proper contingency plan in place to deal with a disaster of this scale. Furthermore, the risk assessment conducted prior to granting permission for the vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters did not adequately consider the potential impact of a disaster. Thus, as mentioned in the SFDRR, Sri Lanka should conduct a risk assessment concerning the potential impact of such disasters on the environment, the economy, and public health.

Strengthening regulations

The SFDRR emphasises the need to strengthen regulations and laws to prevent disasters. For instance, the Draft National Transport Policy of 2009 highlights the safer transportation of hazardous material in all modes, yet the cabinet has not approved this.

Therefore, it is imperative that Sri Lanka reviews its existing laws and regulations, such as the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980, the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No. 35 of 2008, and the Dangerous Goods (Transportation) Regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials and makes necessary amendments to ensure compliance with international standards.

Building capacity

The SFDRR encourages increasing preparedness at all echelons of society. During the X-Press Pearl disaster, emergency responders lacked the necessary equipment and training to respond to the disaster effectively. Additionally, poor coordination between different agencies hampered the response effort. To address these issues, training programmes in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Navy and MEPA could be conducted for essential stakeholders such as shipping companies, port authorities, and emergency responders. These programmes could provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills to prevent and effectively respond to such catastrophes.

Promoting public awareness

The framework stresses the need to educate the public and raise awareness to prevent disasters. However, in the recent disaster, the lack of public awareness about the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials made it difficult to generate support for preventive measures. Therefore, the government, private sector, non-governmental organisations and other relevant stakeholders are responsible for informing the public about the risks of transporting hazardous commodities and the importance of adopting safe shipping practices.

Collaboration and partnerships

The framework encourages cooperation and partnership amongst all parties involved in disaster management. However, Sri Lanka did not collaborate effectively with other countries or international organisations to prevent the disaster. For example, there was no information sharing about the vessel’s previous safety record, which could have alerted Sri Lanka to potential risks. To avoid similar events in the future, Sri Lanka could collaborate with other nations (India and other South Asian countries), international organisations (such as the International Maritime Organisation), and shipping companies.

The disaster has also brought attention to the need for sustainable shipping practices, such as using alternative fuels and more eco-friendly packing materials.Hence, by adopting the Sendai Framework, Sri Lanka can develop an effective approach to prevent similar disasters in the future through proactive measures to protect the environment, public health, and the economy.

Link to blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2023/05/03/the-x-press-pearl-disaster-from-flames-to-prevention/

Ruwan Samaraweera is a Research Officer at IPS with a background in entrepreneurial agriculture. He holds a Bachelor’s in Export Agriculture from Uva Wellassa University of Sri Lanka. His research interests are environmental economics, agricultural economics, macroeconomic policy and planning, labour and migration, and poverty and development policy. (Talk to Ruwan – ruwan@ips.lk)



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NCE highlights costs of Customs officers’ trade union action

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‘The recent actions taken by the Sri Lanka Customs Officers Union, including a two-day sick leave campaign and work-to-rule initiatives, have had profound implications across Sri Lanka’s business community, particularly affecting exporters and importers. These actions were initiated due to perceived grievances and unmet demands from the Customs Officers Union on various issues, the National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka (NCE) is quoted as saying in a press release.

The release adds: ‘Jayantha Karunaratne, president of the National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka highlighted the significant disruptions caused by these actions. He emphasized that the work-to-rule approach has resulted in substantial delays in clearing imported goods at ports and checkpoints, causing disruptions in production schedules and logistical operations. These delays have particularly impacted exporters, who face stringent deadlines to fulfill international orders, leading to strained relationships with overseas buyers and potential financial penalties for missed deliveries.

‘Additionally, these disruptions have imposed additional costs on businesses. Importers have incurred demurrage charges due to extended delays in clearing shipments, impacting profitability and operational efficiency. For exporters handling perishable goods like seafood and fresh produce, delays have posed substantial challenges, sometimes resulting in significant financial losses and resource wastage from spoiled goods.

‘The NCE underscored Customs’ critical role in facilitating trade and economic activity in Sri Lanka, stressing that efficient and predictable Customs processes are crucial for maintaining the competitiveness of Sri Lankan businesses globally. Given that exports are pivotal to Sri Lanka’s economy, disruptions to Customs operations can have far-reaching impacts on economic growth, employment, and overall national prosperity.

‘Expressing serious concern about potential escalations, the NCE warned that prolonged strikes or ongoing disruptions could further destabilize business confidence and investor sentiment. They urged swift and constructive dialogue between the Customs Officers’ Union and relevant authorities to address grievances and find mutually beneficial solutions. Restoring normalcy and reliability to Customs operations, they emphasized, is imperative to support the resilience and growth of Sri Lanka’s export sector amid challenging global economic conditions.

‘In addition to operational disruptions, exporters are increasingly voicing frustration and concerns about Sri Lanka’s future business environment. Many are contemplating relocating operations to countries offering more stable and predictable trade conditions. This potential exodus poses significant economic risks, including job losses, reduced export revenues, and diminished investor confidence.

‘Shiham Marikar, Secretary General/CEO of NCE, stressed the urgent need for Sri Lanka to address these challenges promptly to retain and attract businesses. He emphasized the importance of creating a supportive environment for exporters characterized by efficient Customs processes, regulatory stability, and supportive government policies. Such an environment is crucial for retaining existing exporters and attracting new investments, thereby fostering economic growth and enhancing competitiveness in global markets.

‘Highlighting the competitive nature of the global economy, the NCE emphasized the necessity for Sri Lanka to maintain a reliable and efficient trade infrastructure to remain competitive internationally. Addressing exporter concerns and ensuring a stable business environment should be a top priority for policymakers and stakeholders alike.

‘It is crucial for the government to take swift action to prevent recurring disruptions caused by the Customs Officers’ Union. The recent disruptions have disproportionately affected Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which are the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy. SMEs, operating with smaller margins and less flexibility, are particularly vulnerable to delays and uncertainties in trade operations.

‘These disruptions not only impact daily SME operations but also undermine their competitiveness in domestic and international markets. Many SMEs rely heavily on timely imports and efficient exports to sustain operations, making disruptions detrimental to their growth and viability. Prolonged instability in trade operations risks SMEs relocating or downsizing operations in Sri Lanka, posing significant threats to employment, economic growth, and overall stability.

‘The NCE urged the government to implement robust measures to prevent future disruptions, including constructive dialogue with Customs officers and reforms enhancing Customs efficiency and predictability. Creating a stable and supportive business environment is crucial for protecting SMEs and fostering their growth, thereby contributing to Sri Lanka’s economic resilience and prosperity’.

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Elevating customer experiences, Sampath Bank partners with Royal Colombo Golf Club

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The team from Royal Colombo Golf Club, including Amrith De Soysa – Captain, Gehan Siribaddanan – Vice Captain, Ms. Geera Gajamugan – Director of Administration and Shiran D. Rahuman – Manager of Marketing & Membership Services, stands on the left. De Soysa is seen receiving the main sponsorship from Ms, Ayodhya Iddawela – Managing Director of Sampath Bank PLC, surrounded by Tharaka Ranwala, SDGM – Marketing, Customer Care and Card Centre, Pujitha Rajapaksa, Chief Manager – Marketing and Shantha Kalawitigoda, Manager – Events & Activations.

Sampath Bank is pleased to announce its sponsorship of the prestigious July Monthly Medal Event at the Royal Colombo Golf Club (RCGC), scheduled for the 12th and 13th of July 2024. The sponsorship was formalised during a cheque-handing ceremony on the 10th of July, marking a significant collaboration between Sampath Bank and the RCGC.

The July Monthly Medal Event is a highlight on the golfing calendar, attracting over 300 golfers from across the country. The event will be held over two days, culminating in an award ceremony on the second day. Sampath Bank’s involvement acknowledges its commitment to fostering customer satisfaction and providing exceptional experiences for its valued customers.

Participants in the event will enjoy a variety of activities, including a golf practice session with coaching, the main golf tournament, and an exclusive Cheese & Wine evening on the first day for Sampath Bank customers. Following the two-day tournament, there will be a grand award ceremony and a cocktail event to honour the winners. This initiative not only promotes golf but also provides a unique platform for high-net-worth individuals to engage in a distinguished social setting.

Commenting on the sponsorship, Tharaka Ranwala, Senior Deputy General Manager Marketing, Customer Care & Card Centre, said, “Sampath Bank has always been a strong supporter of all sports, though golf has traditionally been less highlighted, despite its popularity among elite and high-net-worth customers within the banking industry. Sponsoring this event aligns perfectly with our new vision and strategy, which emphasises a greater focus on corporate customers and high-net-worth individuals. Although this is our first partnership with the Royal Colombo Golf Club, we bring extensive experience from our previous collaborations with the Tamil Golf Association’s events in the UK and Canada.”

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Asiri Hospitals and NITF sign landmark agreement to provide tangible healthcare benefits for all Agrahara members

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Asiri Group of Hospitals, trusted for high standards in patient-centered care has signed a landmark agreement with the National Insurance Trust Fund (NITF), to provide comprehensive concessions to all government employees through the Agrahara Medical Insurance scheme.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by Dr. Manjula Karunaratne, Director/Group CEO of Asiri Hospitals, and Gamani N. Liyanarachchi, CEO of NITF, during a ceremony held recently.

The event was attended by several distinguished participants from both organizations. Representing NITF were Sagala Abhayawickrama, Chairperson, Samil Thushara, AGM Operations, Nimali Pathirana, AGM Insurance, Prathibha Welikanna, Asst. Manager Legal, Nuwan Dissanayake, Asst. Manager Marketing, Dammika Weerakoon, Acting AGM Finance.

Asiri Hospitals was represented by Nihal Ratnayake, Director Operations Asiri Central Hospital, Indresh Fernando, Chief Process Officer, Bhathiya Jayasinghe, Group Head, Business Development, Dhananjaya Bandara Dela, Head of Business Development, Government Sector.

The enduring partnership aims to offer tangible healthcare benefits and the renowned comprehensive healthcare services offered by Asiri Hospitals to all NITF Agrahara members. It marks a major milestone in Asiri Hospitals’ commitment to build long-term collaborations that benefits the community. It also reaffirms Asiri Hospitals’ position as a trusted healthcare provider ensuring healthcare is more accessible, affordable, while uplifting the living standards of the public service.

Importantly, Agrahara members are eligible to seek treatment from any hospital in the Asiri group or its laboratories. The agreement also introduces a cashless admission scheme for NITF members, simplifying the process and enabling seamless access to Asiri Hospitals’ services without the need for upfront payments. Members can benefit from waived admission fees, reducing the financial burden for those seeking medical care. Room rates are also heavily discounted.

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