By Lakna Paranamanna/Ceylon Today
Colombo, September 13: Swathes of oil slicks, pristine, species rich waters and coral reefs suffocated by heavy fuel oil could have been the fate that awaited the eastern waters of Sri Lanka when the fire broke out onboard crude oil carrier MT New Diamond, if not for the swift responses of Sri Lankan maritime authorities and armed forces.
Despite tireless efforts for the past week, we are still not entirely rid of the danger.
The MT New Diamond fire comes at the heels of the devastating oil spill that plagued neighbouring Mauritius in July this year. Over 1000 tonnes of fuel leaked from MV Wakashio, which experts note although low – in comparison to disasters like the Deep water Horizon (2010) that saw nearly 400,000 tonnes of oil leaked into the ocean – would still have long lasting, adverse impacts to the enviornment and livelihoods.
The fire onboard MT Diamond, however well handled, has exposed the need for a re-evaluation of Sri Lanka’s current resources and capabilities in handling an oil spill as well as the urgent need for improved regional cooperation – particularly among nations in the Indian Ocean rim as well as South Asia, to handle threats posed by man-made disasters through a unified, coordinated response.
Friend in need
Sri Lanka has up to date experienced six oil spills since 1994 and most have been tier one – meaning they required only local responses involving local resources and capabilities to manage the impact.
The fire onboard MT New Diamond, although has not resulted in an oil spill, involved the implementation of the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) and international assistance – measures that would have been activated during a tier three spill, due to lack of resources and capabilities to fully handle the crisis locally.
Drawing lessons from setbacks during the 2006 MV Amanat Shah tier one spill, the NOSCP dove into action and through tireless efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy, Coastguard and Airforce, was able to contain the fire and continue cooling operations on MT New Diamond. Sri Lanka Navy deployed two offshore patrolling vessels Sayura and Samudura, one fast gunboat, two tugs and an anchor handling vessel ALP Winger was also deployed at the scene while Sri Lanka AirForce deployed two MI 17s, a Y-12 utility transport, a Bell 212 and a beechcraft reconnaissance aircraft for the operation.
But the drawback was the unavailability of a vessel that specialized in firefighting or pollutant control capabilities.
So the Sri Lankan government and Navy promptly requested Indian assistance for specialist operations and in response, Indian Coastguard and Navy deployed Samudra Paheredar – a pollution control vessel, and a TTT One – a vessel specialized in firefighting capabilities to join the efforts of Sri Lankan forces alongside three off-shore patrol vessels and two fast patrol vehicles. They were also joined by two dorniers and a chetak to aid in the fire-fighting mission in the Eastern Sri Lankan waters.
Lack of resources during a crisis at sea has been a long standing issue for Sri Lanka. In 2017, when a fire erupted onboard a large container ship MSC Daniela, Sri Lanka reached out to India and Pakistan for assistance due to lack of vessels with fire-fighting capabilities locally.
With the Colombo port deal soured, Sri Lanka’s ties may be strained with India but the swift response to the request for specialized support to douse the tanker fire, stands as a testament of Sri Lanka’s powerful neighbour’s willingness to aid us at our hour of need.
The fire and the subsequent response by India also stands as a stark reminder that international cooperation, aid and assistance are not factors Sri Lanka can do without, particularly to those within the present government who tow an uber nationalist line, envisioning a future of self-sufficiency requiring little to no international support.
Sri Lanka’s ambitious plans in the Indian ocean
In effectively responding to a crisis of this nature, efforts do not stop at putting out the fire and preventing an oil spill. A crucial aspect that requires immediate attention is the collection of samples at the polluted site to accurately gauge the level of damage in the event of a compensation payout. A failure could lead to a situation similar to the Cosco Busan spill (2007) where it was too late to account for the actual damage.
It is equally important to be equipped with a pool of independent experts to study the samples using robust scientific protocols to ensure admissibility during an arbitration process. Sri Lanka at the time of writing, is still assessing the damage and ‘exploring the possibility’ of filing a claim with the insurer. Reality is, such technical and scientific resources can be a far reaching goal for a small state such as Sri Lanka due to financial constraints.
Enhancing Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean region and transformation of the country into a maritime hub was a vision in Mahinda Chinthana, taken forward by the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and continues under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But the lack of specialized capabilities and mechanisms stand in the way of Sri Lanka using its prime geopolitical positioning for maximum gains.
Call for international cooperation
Lack of scientific and technological expertise, particularly in handling a crisis such as an oil spill is not a challenge that Sri Lanka faces alone – it is an issue for many other smaller, developing nations of the Indian Ocean rim as well.
These obstacles only make a stronger case for significant improvements in transboundary cooperation. Regional bodies such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) must take on a more proactive role in addressing and responding to challenges that small and littoral states find tougher to meet head-on.
IORA’s 2019 cluster group meeting on disaster risk management appeared to be a promising start. Unfortunately, it was too focused on natural disasters and any concrete steps on coordinated measures appear to be a work in progress.
India, as the South Asian power and other rising nations such as Indonesia in the IORA, are content with their current status but have adopted a less enthusiastic approach in assuming true leadership positions in the region. Delivery of swift, collective and comprehensive action by these regional powers are vital if they are to prevent other global power powerhouses setting up shop in their backyards.
It is time that nations of the Indian Ocean rim looked beyond their borders through integrated national contingency plans with closest neighbours. There needs to be regionally organised efforts aimed at improving cooperation, communication and response capabilities inclusive of a pool of resources and experts who are ready to respond in an emergency at national and regional levels. These measures could help the creation of ‘home-grown’ solutions appropriate for the region.
A successful case is point would be the Global Initiative for West, Central, and Southern Africa (GI WACAF) established to raise standards of oil spill preparedness and response capability across the African region in 2006. It could also act as a balancing bloc against super powers vying to expand influence in the region as we currently experience with the US -China competition in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka is already working with India on some key aspects of maritime safety such as improving its Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. A similar venture could be intiated for an information sharing platform that could monitor and provide realtime updates on its maritime enviornment so that crises such as oil spills can be responded with minimal delays, but also aid in other aspects of maritime safety such as counter terrorism operations, trafficking and maritime piracy.
Arbitration and accountability mechanisms maritime law and obligation violations are also key areas that require focus. It is also an area that Sri Lanka could take the lead on as it falls perfectly in line with the vision of transforming the country into a maritime hub.
The intense competition to woo nations in the Indian Ocean region can also serve as a blessing in this regard if wielded prudently. US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Beigun was recently quoted stating the US’ Indo Pacific Strategy – the blueprint to counter Chinese influence in the region – would not be successful without India standing by their side. It would only make sense for powers such as the U.S. that is equipped with expertise of 16 federal agencies in dealing with maritime crises such as oil spills, to ready their partners and allies with necessary disaster relief responses via knowledge sharing and technical cooperation, not to mention equipment upgrades. With the US and India joining hands alongside Japan to counter Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka too is in an optimal position to request technical assistance.
Way forward for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka plans to have a lot on its plate with regard to maritime domain in the years to come – an international role for the Sri Lanka Navy and naval modernization plans via Sri Lanka Navy Maritime Strategy 2025, upgrading of ports as well as oil production by 2023. These aspirations also indicate the increased risk of manmade damages to the marine ecosystem surrounding the country. Furthermore, against a backdrop of such vast ambitions, can Sri Lanka continue to ignore much needed capacity building?
While Sri Lanka’s defense budget has increased since the war, close to 70% of it is spent on manpower, leaving a restricted budget for upgrades. As such foreign assistance is always an available option. But it is vital that the government remains prudent in accepting opportunities for cooperation and takes into account the agendas and interests that come concealed in the form of assistance in order to ensure Sri Lanka’s national interests remain unharmed and any conflict in the region is avoided.
(The featured image at the top shows Sri Lankan vessels dousing the fire onboard MT New Diamond.Photo: Sri Lankan Navy)