Photo courtesy of New York Post

There will be huge amounts of compensation for the damage caused by the X-Press Pearl vessel in the Sri Lankan waters, this is indeed essential to Sri Lanka during this economic crisis.” This is a politician’s perception of the vessel-source pollution caused by the X-Press Pearl that caught fire and sank off in the Sri Lankan waters. Not only the politicians but the majority of the public is also unaware of how the compensation for catastrophic vessel-source pollution works.

Being the fifth on the Global Coastal Index for the 20 countries identified for dumping polythene and plastic into the oceans, Sri Lanka should claim and utilise the compensation for sustainable management of the marine environment.

What happened to the Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl, which had been on fire near the Colombo due to a nitric acid leak? Despite the efforts by Sri Lanka and India to contain the fire, several containers tumbled into the sea. Remnants of burnt containers and plastic raw material washed up on to the Negombo beach while miniature, hazardous low-density polythene pellets were found inside dead fish. Although there have not been any oil spills so far, the burnt plastics caused a greasy stain around the ship.

The Law of the Sea Convention contains considerable detail on the rights and duties of the states in terms of taking proactive measures concerning ship-source pollution that vary depending on the maritime zone in which pollution took place. The public has a right to know the consequences and the compensation received for the maritime calamity.

Authorities from the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) stated that they are still in the process of assessing the damage. The compensation should be inclusive of the damage to the environment, fisheries and tourism. Compensation for environmental destruction should include costs for the reasonable measures taken, to be taken and to restore the environment to the condition it was before. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that these reinstatement measures accelerate the natural recovery of the environmental damage. However, there is a research gap in marine environmental management. Baseline data related to the coastal and marine ecosystem values, qualitative and quantitative information of the ecosystems are exclusively limited in Sri Lanka. This delays the process of assessing damage caused by maritime accidents and inevitably delays environmental reinstatement measures.

General claims for marine environmental damage are not admissible under the purview of the Law of the Sea Convention, which means that no compensation will be made for the claims of a non-economic nature. Future generations will not be able to enjoy the benefits of unharmed ecosystems because, despite the magnitude of the reinstatement measures, none of the ecosystems will be the same as they were. Thus, the consequences for future generations will not be captured comprehensively under the compensation. However, there are methodologies to calculate these future values economically such as contingent valuation methods; marine resources have to be assessed not only for the value of the damaged ecosystems but also for future values.

Valuation of the marine ecosystems is limited to sites such as the only functioning marine protected area, Pigeon Island in Trincomalee. It is unlikely that the claims made will be adequate to compensate for the damage caused to marine and coastal ecosystems. Therefore, it is time that international laws are amended to capture the sustainability component of the reinstatement measures due to vessel-source pollutions in the oceans.

For coastal developing countries like Sri Lanka, vessel-source pollution incidents pose economic threats due to the significant GDP contribution by the tourism and fisheries sectors. Currently, both sectors have been badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no coral reefs near the ship but if an oil spill occurs, it will impact the surrounding sensitive ecosystems such as lagoons, river estuaries and mangroves. These ecosystems have already been polluted by chemicals from the vessel, affecting the fisheries and tourism sectors.

Fishermen from Wattala to Negombo, already hit by COVID-19 restrictions, are not allowed to go fishing and have no alternative livelihoods. They are unable to access government compensation programmes due to a lack transparency and accountability. The tourism sector in the area has suffered the same fate.

The public is lacking in environmental illiteracy; regardless of warnings to avoid picking up the debris, coastal communities are collecting hazardous material because they are undergoing economic hardship.

Although this is the second vessel-caused pollution incident in the Sri Lankan waters since 2020, the compensation framework is not sophisticated enough to deal with the consequences.

Lessons learned from incidents of vessel-source pollution in other countries have helped in developing inclusive maritime safety designs for nations where all sources of damages (environment, fisheries and tourism) were included when claiming compensation. Some countries have special funds to assist in these instances.

Sri Lanka should also consider expanding its horizons to cope with the vessel-source pollution as the country is about to expand its port capacities to attract more shipping vessels. It is also essential to enhance environmental literacy by including the topic in school curricula.

The country needs to prepare for maritime accidents because this one will not be the last one to occur in its territorial waters.