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Sri Lanka’s worst ever maritime disaster reveals the true cost of our identity crisis | Sandali Handagama

Growing up in Sri Lanka in the Nineties, it was drilled into me from an early age that my island was destined to be a maritime hub. In school, I used to be taught that Sri Lanka was as soon as the coronary heart of the maritime Silk Road, a community of commerce routes that related the east and west from 130BC to the mid-1400s.

My textbooks have been crammed with tales about how Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning and wealthy pure assets have been so prized that it was consecutively colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires for nearly 4 centuries.

I had no motive to query this: sitting between China and the African continent, our teardrop island south of the Indian subcontinent appeared to be at the geographical centre of worldwide commerce.

Then there was the city legend that Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, visited a newly impartial Sri Lanka in the Nineteen Fifties, and declared that he would mannequin his city-state after it. Shortly afterwards Sri Lanka descended into civil conflict, whereas Singapore raced forward, turning into a global maritime hub and one of the busiest worldwide ports in the world. It was solely as a result of of the conflict, we have been meant to consider, that Sri Lanka had not developed like Singapore. All of us grew up envisioning a newly affluent Sri Lanka, a tropical paradise that was the pure hub of worldwide delivery.

Establishing itself as a maritime centre stays at the coronary heart of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical ambitions. In the course of, nevertheless, the nation has change into irreversibly indebted. In 2010, it used loans from China to construct Hambantota port. In 2017, the Sri Lankan authorities defaulted on its loans and a majority stake in the port was leased to China for 99 years.

Regardless of heavy competitors with bigger ports in India, a Chinese language-funded port metropolis is being constructed in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s industrial capital. China’s substantial investments in Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces began a regional bidding conflict for management over the remaining container terminals in Colombo. China already owns 85% of the Colombo worldwide container terminal; now Sri Lanka is negotiating with Japan and India over management of the east and west container terminals.

With the nation carrying determined ranges of debt, and below excessive stress to not solely make a revenue from the maritime trade however to additionally show it has succesful industrial delivery ports, it isn’t stunning that when a cargo ship approached Colombo port in Might, and requested for permission to restore a harmful chemical leak, the port authority obliged.

Sri Lanka navy personnel clear debris from the X-Press Pearl, which had 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals onboard.
Sri Lanka navy personnel clear particles from the X-Press Pearl, which had 25 tonnes of nitric acid and different chemical substances onboard. {Photograph}: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

In accordance with a statement from the harbour grasp, Nirmal Silva, the ship – the Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl – gave the port a normal discover on its arrival, then at anchor sought permission to restore the leak.

“Such transforming actions should not unusual in the port of Colombo,” Silva said. “That is regular, particularly in a hub port comparable to the port of Colombo. It’s a service not solely in our port but in addition in different ports usually. We have to be prepared to offer all these providers accessible in the delivery trade as a trans-shipment hub.”

A number of different nations, nevertheless, felt no such stress to deal with the compromised cargo. Media shops reported that the ship was denied entry at ports in Qatar and India previous to arriving in Sri Lanka. This was later denied in an official statement by X-Press Feeders, the firm that owned the ship. As a substitute, the firm indicated that these ports had not accepted the leaking cargo.

“Functions had been made to each ports to dump a container that was leaking nitric acid however the recommendation given was there have been no specialist amenities or experience instantly accessible to cope with the leaking acid,” the assertion stated.

In the meantime, AFP Information reported that the ship had informed its native delivery agent of an acid leak onboard the vessel, however the agent had didn’t alert native authorities.

The leak is believed to have brought on a fireplace that has led to the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s historical past: a cargo ship crammed with harmful chemical substances burning and sinking simply off the island’s western coast. The nation is going through an oil leak that might devastate the fishing trade and coastal setting, in addition to the menace of the dozens of extremely poisonous chemical substances on board, some of which have but to be catalogued, not to mention recovered.

From 1000’s of miles away in New York, I cried as I watched the blazing hearth, as a result of of what it meant for my nation’s financial system and its most precious property: its beautiful seashores and unparalleled biodiversity. I felt dread at the prospect of dropping extra floor to highly effective nations in a geopolitical tug-of-war if this places extra stress on Sri Lanka’s ailing financial system. Hopefully, the failures in oversight and accountability will function an important studying expertise and spur long-overdue environmental safeguards to stop a repetition of this disaster.

However the disaster additionally harmed our collective dream of what we ought to be as a rustic. Determined to show ourselves at any cost in the service of our self-identity – and with the huge debt that we have now incurred to safe that identity – Sri Lanka has been handed a invoice for extra than simply the clean-up. It has suffered a blow to its popularity as an rising maritime hub.

Whether or not this disaster can even be the second when Sri Lanka stops shackling itself with unpayable money owed and teaches a unique imaginative and prescient to its youngsters – one which accepts that Sri Lanka will not be Singapore, however a rustic that embraces the ocean’s wonders somewhat than treating it like a dumping floor – time will inform.

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