ORUntil last week, Lucien Justin, chairman of Jude Watta’s fisheries committee in Wattala, near the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, led a simple life. He and his wife ate twice a day, and their small community of 90 fishermen regularly supported each other with food and money. “If we fish, money comes. If not, we are left hungry, ”he said.
However, after the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan history poisoned the waters near where he fishes, he fears that even the simple life is now in grave danger. “People are afraid. Even if we did fish, they wouldn’t eat it because they think it’s poisonous, ”he said.
The fire may have been extinguished aboard the MV X-Press Pearl freighter, which has now partially sunk, but observers fear that the worst impacts of the chemical ship disaster are yet to come.
The Singapore-flagged container ship, which was traveling from Qatar to India, via Colombo on its way to Singapore, was carrying 350 tons of bunker fuel, which authorities say could spill and affect coastal communities. Fishing is prohibited along the western coast of the country for about 50 miles. Cutting access to the sea means cutting off the livelihoods of coastal communities like Justin’s.
The plastic granules have also spilled from the ship’s containers and ended up on the beaches. The navy has been asked to clean up the burned remains and debris.
But other effects cannot be easily cleaned, or even seen. The ship was carrying a wide variety of dangerous chemicals: nitric acid, used for explosives; epoxy resins, used for paints and primers; and ethanol and lead ingots, used to manufacture vehicle batteries.
There were other products as well: caustic soda, lubricating oils, aluminum by-products, polyethylene used for bags and packaging for groceries, cosmetics and even food, according to Hemantha Withanage, an environmental scientist and executive director of the Environmental Justice Center in Sri Lanka.
One container, Withanage noted, is called Environmentally Harmful Substances. What are these substances? We do not know. The authorities have not told us yet, ”he said. “But why are they keeping this information secret?”
The sinking of the ship means the likely leaching of these chemicals into the ocean. “And that is a serious risk to our ecosystem,” he said, explaining that it could cause the death and contamination of corals, fish, turtles and other marine species that abound on the country’s coasts.
Whales and dolphins frequent the oceans, and the coastal belt also provides a nesting ground for sea turtles: of the seven types of sea turtles in the world, the coast of Sri Lanka welcomes five of them. When the ship caught fire images circulated on social networks of fish, moray eels, rays and turtles stranded on the beaches.
After a fire broke out on the ship due to an acid leak that started on May 11, both Qatar and India permission denied for the ship to unload its chemical containers, according to reports. “We saved the lives of 25 sailors,” Withanage said. “That is one of the biggest humanitarian actions we take, something we should be proud of, but it comes at an incalculable cost to our entire environment.”
Across Sri Lanka, people are angry that the leaky ship remained in the country’s waters. On social media, many residents are criticizing what they see as government negligence, leading to an environmental disaster.
Withanage says the country’s lack of adequate equipment and an early response system meant the fire spiraled out of control, leading to a explosion on the morning of May 25, six days after the fire started. Indian emergency support arrived on May 27. “The Sri Lanka unit used water for fire control, which is incorrect because when harmful agents such as sodium methoxide react with water, it forms corrosive substances and starts a fire,” he said.
Diran Kamantha, 27, who works at the Pegasus Reef hotel on Wattala beach, is concerned about the possible devastation of the business.
“There are a lot of pellets on the beach. Some areas are black, with the debris from the ship, ”Kamantha said. The hotel welcomes local and foreign tourists and organizes weddings. “It is sad because this is not only a bad image for our beaches and our hotel, but also for our entire country,” he said.
Withanage agrees that the disaster has not only poisoned the waters, but could deal a permanent blow to Sri Lanka’s reputation and the confidence of its own people in eating the fish caught off its shores.
“For people to eat fish again, there must be a change in mindset,” Withanage said, citing images of fish washed ashore with plastic trapped in their gills. That plastic “will continue to be in our oceans for decades to come, polluting our coastline, ingested by marine life and entering our lagoon systems,” he said.
As the country continues to fight a new wave of Covid-19, with an average of 3,000 cases and 30 deaths per day, the government imposed across the island travel restrictions to keep people at home. The impact it could have on beach cleanliness is unclear. “I don’t think we have enough manpower right now,” Kamantha said. “Everyone is home and afraid to go out because we are fighting a deadly virus.”
As for Justin, the hit feels permanent. “This sea, that is our entire world,” he said. “Without fishing, we don’t know how we can continue to live.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism