A raging inferno at sea and disaster clusters on land: Has all hell simultaneously broken loose in Paradise? It seems as though this once thrice blessed nation has been rendered bereft of its four guardian deities and left, naked and bare, to the mercy of incessant calamities to strike at will with wanton impudence. Such [...]


Lanka: The burning pearl


  • A raging inferno at sea and disaster clusters on land:
  • Has all hell simultaneously broken loose in Paradise?

It seems as though this once thrice blessed nation has been rendered bereft of its four guardian deities and left, naked and bare, to the mercy of incessant calamities to strike at will with wanton impudence. Such has become the accursed fate of this condemned state of Lanka that even a disaster waiting to happen at sea is held suspended until it arrives on these island shores to break out with catastrophic consequences.

While a natural pestilence rages throughout the length and breadth of the island mass and has made the people prisoners in their own homes, with graves increasingly opening up to receive its new possessors as a result; while the rain forests and ecosystem wrought by nature to maintain the earth’s equilibrium stand endangered with man’s foul hand felling centuries old trees and indiscriminately clearing the country’s forest cover; while the fires of  racial hate is  rekindled again and again to tom-tom beat hollow Sinhala supremacy with no effort taken to douse the flames for good; while the economy is in shambles with a beggared government forced to seek succour from former beggars now made good; while life on the land is under siege  on all fronts, with the island’s surrounding territorial waters, the last frontier, now condemned with chemical contamination and its pristine beaches tarred, it seems all hell has simultaneously broken loose in Lanka.

Take the ill-fated odyssey of X-Press Pearl, the container vessel that freighted doom to Lanka’s sea and shore.

Chinese-built and Singaporean flagged, the 186-meter-long container ship was handed to X-Press Feeders on February 10 this year. It had a maximum carrying capacity of 2743 twenty-foot container units. Deployed to ply the Straits to Middle East route, from Malaysia to Dubai, the port of call for this brand new ship on its return voyage were Port Hazira in Gujarati, India and Colombo, Sri Lanka before reaching its final eastern destination. Earlier it had made two voyages docking in Colombo on March 17 and April 18. This was her third and, as it turned out, final voyage in her short life.

On the ‘third-time-unlucky’ voyage home, the ship carrying  1,486 containers, which included 25 tons of nitric acid, other chemicals, cosmetics, even penis enlarging cream and low density polyethylenepellets. Somewhere in the Arabian Sea, the ship’s crew detected that the container carrying nitric acid was leaking. According to reports, the ship’s captain informed the port at Qatar of the leakage and requested permission to offload the offending cargo but was refused.

It then proceeded to its next scheduled port of call, Port Hazira in India. Again permission was denied on the ground that “there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leaking acid”. It then set course to its next scheduled port of call in Colombo. It reached Sri Lankan territorial waters on the night of May 19 and dropped anchor 9 nautical miles from coast, northwest of the Colombo Port. The question has been raised: ‘Who allowed the ship in to Lankan waters’?

But it must be noted that under Article 17 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, all ships have the inherent right to innocent passage through the territorial sea which is 12 nautical miles from the coastline over which coastal states enjoy sovereign rights.

Clause 2 of Article 18 states that ‘Passage shall be continuous and expeditious. However, it can also be rendered necessary by force majeure, Act of God, or when the ship is in distress.

Article 19 states that ‘passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State’. It further states that passage will cease to be innocent if any act, among others, of willful and serious pollution is committed.

The X-Press Pearl, not only possessed legal cover to unilaterally traverse Lanka’s sovereign waters under the right of innocent passage and did not violate the immunity granted by not willfully discharging pollutants, but also had for her presence in the outer harbour the added protection of entering the territorial waters by prior notice and approval since her arrival was a scheduled visit. Neither is she, so far, accused of willfully discharging pollutants.

It is what transpired after her authorised entry that is at issue.

Many questions have been raised as to whether the Captain informed and the port was aware of the leakage, whether the port despite being a maritime hub was equipped with the necessary tools to handle a disaster of this magnitude? But these questions and a host of others will have to await answer till the ship’s black box is found and investigations yield more evidence to make those liable pay for this cardinal sin against nature.

But, as Environment Minister Amaraweera said, ‘even if Rs. 100 billion is paid to the government as compensation, the damage caused to the environment cannot be restored’.

True. Except as punitive damages to deter repeats or as a bonanza from the sea to bolster Lanka’s depleted foreign exchange reserves or to pay for the present task of doing what is possible to clean up the beaches, repairing the colossal damage done to marine life and the coral reef will be a job for nature and time which will once more be called to restore what man has destroyed.

But even as the three-month old Pearl, which hit a sand bed while being towed on presidential orders further out to sea, sinks to its watery early grave the alarm was raised  over the possible leakage of 300 tons of oil stored in its hold. If the unthinkable should happen and the feared oil spillage should occur then the damage to the coastal environment would be unimaginable.

A plague ridden desolate landscape laid to waste, a bleak tarred condemned coastal belt, wrapped around by a greasy sea. What more is needed to make the picture of doom as ordained by Hubris replete?

On Friday night another disaster loomed frighteningly over the capital’s waterworks.   Furnace oil from tanks at the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery had overflowed following heavy rain and was reportedly threatening the Kelani River. If the oil reached the river, it was said, it would affect water distribution from the Ambathale and Biyagama water treatment plants, the sources of the Greater Colombo and Gampaha residents’ water supply.

If not averted, this would affect millions, with water, water everywhere with the rains in full force, and not a drop to drink, cook or wash? Is there really no end to the nation’s nightmare of disasters, no end to this curse on the landscape forsaken by the gods?

US PRESIDENT: Biden to the rescue

Thanks Joe, for the AstraZeneca

  • US rids second thoughts and gives Lankans the vaccine

The American Government on Tuesday dismissed its second thoughts over sharing her excess stock of COVID vaccines, including the AstraZeneca, and decided to include the Lankan people to her list of beneficiaries.

In a message issued by the White House, it was made clear the US was not extending her vaccine largess to governments in return for concessions but to help the people. US President Joe Biden said: “We are sharing these doses not to secure favours or extract concessions. We are sharing these vaccines to save lives and to lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic, with the power of our example and with our values.

On May 22, two days after Parliament had enacted the controversial Port City Bill which gave legal life to the Chinese-built Port City with the Chinese in occupation as a legal tenant for 99 years, US Embassy Spokesperson Nancy VanHorn told the media that the US Government was in two minds whether to include Lanka to the beneficiaries’ list for a share of the vaccines.

But last Sunday, the SUNDAY PUNCH under the headline Memo to the US: ‘Don’t do the dirty on the Lankan people’ urged the American Government to transcend international power politics at this pandemic hour and help the people of Lanka direct by giving the vaccines, especially the AstraZeneca to the 600,000 people who, after having taken it as their first dose, had been left stranded without the second.

In a fervent appeal to US President Joe Biden, the SUNDAY PUNCH urged “his Catholic heart that this is the time to forgive, the time to transcend American distaste toward foreign governments which publicly embrace American foes, and, in the name of humanity, to grant the grace of life-saving 600,000 AstraZeneca doses from his nation’s stockpile to the Lankan people.”

Thanks, Mr. President. And take a bow. You’ve done the American people proud.  Cheers. And make ours not a cocktail but an AstraZeneca. Neat.

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