Lessons from New Diamond saga | Sunday Observer

Lessons from New Diamond saga

13 September, 2020

There are many lessons to be learnt from the saga involving the VLCC Crude Oil carrier MT New Diamond. But first, all Sri Lankans have to be grateful to the Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Air Force and the Indian Coastguard whose personnel worked day and night to douse the fire on board the MT New Diamond, (though it ignited again on a smaller scale) to prevent a massive oil leak from the crude oil storage area. The ship was carrying 260,000 MT of Crude. One can only imagine the scale of the disaster had that come to pass.

To get an idea of what this could mean, one does not have to go back to the days of the Exxon Valdez disaster (March 24, 1989) in which 37,000 MT of Crude affected over 2,100 Km of the Alaska shoreline. Its effects are felt to this day. One just has to review what happened recently off the coast of Mauritius. The environmental disaster began on July 25 when the ship MV Wakashio strayed off course and struck a coral reef a mile (1.6 kilometres) offshore. After being pounded by heavy surf for nearly two weeks, the ship’s hull cracked and on August 6 it began leaking fuel into a lagoon, polluting a protected wetlands area and a bird and wildlife sanctuary. It spilled just 1,000 MT of oil, but even that has been devastating to the marine life and of course, the economy of Mauritius. The ship owner (Nagashiki Shipping) and operator (Mitsui OSK) have apologised to the Government and people of Mauritius, but that counts little given the massive environmental impact.

Now the authorities as well as the ship operators/owners of MT New Diamond must do everything possible to prevent a disastrous oil spill, which will have dire consequences for Sri Lanka and even for southern parts of India. Indeed, it was gratifying to see the two countries’ Security Forces working together to rescue the sailors on board and douse the mega fire with limited resources at hand. The Sri Lanka Air Force introduced several innovative techniques in this regard doing nearly 200 sorties using helicopter and surveillance aircraft.

The authorities must also work with the ship operators and owners to seek costs for these operations as well as compensation for whatever environmental impact the fire has caused, including an oil slick from the ship’s propulsion fuel (not the crude in the holds). Sri Lankan legal authorities are already working on this aspect. Just to cite an example, the Japanese operator of the ship that ran aground in Mauritius said it will provide 1 billion yen ($9 million) to fund environmental projects and support the local fishing community. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines said the Mauritius Natural Environment Recovery Fund will be used for mangrove protection, coral reef recovery, protection of seabirds and rare species, and research by private and governmental groups.

Both these incidents, though different, have posed almost similar challenges to two Indian Ocean islands. Granted, Sri Lanka is a much bigger island and the impact may not cover the entire country, the challenge however is more or less the same. These two incidents call for a comprehensive review of maritime security conditions and disaster preparedness of Indian Ocean Rim countries. This is vital as Sri Lanka is strategically located on a major East-West shipping route and many ships carrying dangerous or volatile cargo sail perilously close to our shores.

Thus the Indian Ocean countries should have a 24/7 network to monitor the shipping movements, that is also capable of rapid deployment of relevant navies/coastguards at the first hint of trouble. Satellite data must also be shared. This will also be vital in the fight against transnational terrorism, sea piracy, overfishing/poaching of fisheries resources, narcotics smuggling and people smuggling. It is also vital to strengthen the capacity, readiness and technological prowess of institutions that would be directly involved in any environmental disaster, such as the Navy, Coastguard, Disaster Management Centre, Central Environmental Authority, Met Department, Marine Pollution Prevention Authority and Fisheries Ministry. Several shortcomings were identified in some of these institutions during recent incidents, though all of them went above and beyond their call of duty in the risk mitigation exercise despite having limited resources.

There should also be a comprehensive plan to face any environmental disaster, possibly with international help in the course of events of this nature. It might not be financially possible or even feasible for countries like Sri Lanka to handle maritime disasters on their own. Even a developed country like the USA took many years to ward off the effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Protecting a vast coast from various vulnerabilities is not easy and the resources we are currently allocating may not be adequate given the current and future challenges.

One such challenge is Climate Change, which has the potential to wipe out entire coastal cities off the face of the Earth in less than 150 years unless mankind takes collective steps to rein in Greenhouse Gas emissions. Any rise (even by one metre) in sea levels could have devastating consequences to coastal communities and even world trade, as coastal ports are the lifeblood of the world. Therefore, the world must urgently address the issue of Climate Change and also expedite the switch to Green, renewable energy to put an end to the near-total dependence on oil. In the light of events surrounding the two recent incidents in the Indian Ocean, there is a real urgency to take more urgent steps to protect our fragile environment.