The effort is to build capacities to develop a suitable system, especially with a systems engineering approach to build a more resilient system that can help prevent and respond to future maritime disasters.
Australia has offered to help Sri Lanka develop a national maritime disaster preparedness mechanism, a statement released by the Sri Lanka foreign ministry said.
The realisation and the urgency of preparing for maritime disasters has gained currency following the X-Press Pearl disaster, the biggest maritime disaster in the island nation’s history.
A Sri Lanka foreign ministry statement on Friday said quoting Australia’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka David Holly that the Australian government is ready to assist Sri Lanka in building capacity to develop a suitable system, potentially with a systems engineering approach. The government statement added that Holly acknowledged that Australia’s approach to maritime disaster preparedness may not be the best fit for Indian ocean island.
In May 2021, X-Press Pearl, a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught fire off the Sri Lanka coast causing an environmental disaster. For days, plumes of dark, thick smoke engulfed the skyline until the ship, along with its stock of polluting chemicals (and plastic nurdles) sank in the Indian ocean.
Maritime disaster management
There is agreement that the disaster has long-term impacts. Media reports and images of partially burnt debris and tonnes of nurdles turning up on Sri Lanka’s shores along with marine litter, including dead animals had caused panic among citizens who even stopped purchasing seafood, otherwise a regular part of their diets.
A contract for the removal of debris from the wrecked ship was signed with a Chinese salvage company earlier this month. The company has been given four months to complete the work. The Sri Lankan government is anxious to complete the work soon so that activities like fishing and tourism can pick up. These sectors are important contributors to the Sri Lankan economy, currently facing an acute shortage of foreign exchange.
The government is also being assisted by an Australian law firm on the environmental damage claims Sri Lanka can make of the Singaporean shipping company X-Press Pearl belonged to.
It is envisaged that the experience from the disaster and the assistance from Australia will help Sri Lanka establish a maritime disaster management entity or a maritime safety authority to address disasters similar disasters in the Indian Ocean and also to provide search and rescue facilities in the region in its role as a regional centre.
The foreign ministry statement said that government authorities have been in discussions to learn from the Australian experience of managing maritime disasters.
Upside to the disaster
Hasanthi Urugodawatte Dissanayake, additional secretary for ocean affairs, environment and climate change in Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said that an upside to the X-Press Pearl disaster would be that it will catalyse building a more resilient system to prevent and respond to future maritime disasters.
“This means prioritising maritime emergency preparedness and management through development of a maritime disaster preparedness plan, strengthening the institutional basis for its implementation with adequate capacity building for the staff of relevant agencies,” Dissanayake said.
Both, Sri Lanka and Australia agree on the need of a collective initiative to achieve a minimum level of preparedness and expertise in the area. This will require setting up mechanisms to facilitate international assistance to avoid overlaps and address key gaps.
According to the Australian embassy, this will need to be complemented by a systems engineering approach to enable Sri Lanka focus on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’ based on its current capacity and resources.
Sri Lanka developed an initial working draft for a maritime disaster preparedness mechanism for Sri Lanka in September 2021, almost five months after the X-Press Pearl disaster.
A committee is currently in the process of fine-tuning the mechanism together with other stakeholders “to bring the issue of marine pollution and immediate recovery to global level, particularly caused by plastic nurdles,” the foreign ministry statement said.