Sri Lanka woke up to an unusual situation on Thursday, where a super tanker carrying 270,000 metric tonnes of crude oil had suffered an explosion and was drifting dangerously close to the East coast. Help was sought from the Indians and other ships close by, but due to the need for specialised fire-fighting capacity, authorities were still struggling to contain the situation by last evening. This underscores the need for better resources and regulations to be adopted by Sri Lanka, if it still wants to develop as a maritime hub and protect its natural resources.
The goal of becoming a maritime hub was much publicised by the Government that existed before 2015. At first glance, this makes sense, as Sri Lanka has a robust transshipment industry with the Indian subcontinent, and leveraging on its geographical location has been cited in policy documents for decades. However, shipping experts have pointed out that despite Sri Lanka’s long history in this industry, there are no laws currently to allow the country to demand compensation from errant oil companies if there is ever a large-scale oil spill in Sri Lankan waters.
The legislation, according to reports, has been drafted but is yet to complete the process of being made into law. These are gaps that can have serious consequences. Last month a Japanese bulk carrier leaked 1000 tonnes of fuel oil off the coast of Mauritius, and the damage to their fragile eco-system was significant. Damage due to that oil spill was limited because some of the fuel was pumped out of the floundering vessel before it began leaking, but the impact on the ecosystem is expected to last for years.
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, already hit by the double-whammy of the Easter Sunday attacks and COVID-19, cannot afford to have one of its most lucrative areas endangered in this way. It is true that this was unexpected and perhaps even unprecedented, but the fact is that even multiple oil spills around the world for decades, especially having witnessed the infamous 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, did not spur local policy makers to consider the importance of legislation to address such concerns.
Admittedly ships, especially large ones, need to be encouraged to travel closer to Sri Lanka so they can pay for services given by harbours, but at the same time there is clearly a need to develop the right policy and legislative framework to protect Sri Lanka’s interests in the worst case scenario.
Singapore, which focused on establishing themselves as a bona-fide maritime hub, has invested in the resources and legislation needed for this purpose. While Sri Lanka, with its myriad of economic troubles, is unlikely to be able to match them on the resources front, it should nonetheless focus on legislative protection.
For now, Government agencies are scrambling to set up measures to deal with a potential oil spill, but how they will go about this is yet to be detailed to the public. The best hope is that Indian ships with the capacity to handle this situation reach the New Diamond, and manage to take control of it and tow it safely away from Sri Lankan waters. The 23-member crew has been rescued, but one person is reported to be missing. Given that it is a double-hulled ship, this would be the best outcome Sri Lanka can hope for.