22 April, 2024


The Tightening Noose

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The image below produced by Google mapping marine pollution says many things. First, that much like India our coastal zones are affected by land based pollution. The thin red line that wraps around the island suggests that our near ocean waters have been seriously polluted by effluent from the land. But unlike India or any other neighboring country, there is yet another ring of oceanic pollution extending one hundred or more nautical miles into the Indian ocean. Like a noose around the inland with the ropes going east and west we are in the middle. In both our territorial waters and our extended economic zone, our waters are being polluted and poisoned by international shipping and we are proud that we have a unique position in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis shipping. We want to increase our exposure to shipping, but do nothing to protect ourselves from the consequences.

Shipping is the most polluting of all transport.  Because of decisions taken by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) based in London, which frames maritime policy, it is legal for ships to burn a substance called ‘Bunker Fuel’, which is the thick residue left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken off.  It is stuff nobody on land is allowed to use because of its huge pollution potential. It is the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel yet the IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. This is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in the European Union. To make things worse, the tiny particulate sulphur comes that comes out of ship funnels are the very type that that get deep into lungs of humans and animals. The levels ultrafine particulates or PM 2.5’s (a subgroup of particulate matter), which are especially harmful for human health, are up to 100 times above the normal load, in ship exhaust gases.

The Blue Whales of Sri Lanka are a national treasure and famous tourist attraction; they live just at the edge of the continental shelf south of the Island. However the vast traffic of international shipping also sees this zone as easy passage. With the plans for shipping increase to Hambantota, the atmospheric concentration of these particulates will increase dramatically in this zone. Whales are mammals like us and have huge lungs into which they suck the air polluted by shipping. Whale conservationists should look into the sustainability of populations living in high shipping zones.

Shipping terminals are especially bad. Compared to what has to be considered as “clean air“ where 1,000 particles per cubic centimeter is considered ‘safe’, scientists have found up to 400,000 (ppm/cm2) next to shipping terminals. In these situations, the particle numbers exceeded the concentration level by more than a factor 400. Such air pollution levels surpass concentrations next to main roads with dense traffic by 50 to 80 times. As ports are often located in city centers or close by cities, their air pollution endangers many people’s health. Particulate matter causes and worsens coronary and pulmonary diseases. Has Colombo addressed this threat to its citizens ?

Pollution by ocean shipping is so bad that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution in  a day as all the world’s cars. The IMO’s rules means that that the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year into the atmosphere, this is equivalent to 50 million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year. 

Sri Lanka, without laws to protect our marine resources from international shipping, now seeks to invite it even closer without any environmental safeguards for our protection. It is not difficult to envision that ring of pollution around our island, getting tighter and closer to the coast, as the ill educated and greedy only squabble to make more ports or attract more ships.

Should we not first pass laws that require ships to burn low sulphur fuel when they enter our ports, as they do when the enter waters in the US or Europe?  Should some random carrier, that could destroy or fisheries or tourist industry, not insure us against a spill of oil or hazardous material, when using our waters ?

The ring of international ship based pollution on the ocean around us is tightening daily, as a consequence of a lack of protective legislature. Currently we do not have any enforcement abilities to protect our waters from the high levels of Sulphur emanating from the shipping traffic. Thus, until there is a control of burning bunker fuel in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters at a minimum, there will be no responsible management of our maritime waters.

The ring of land-based pollution is a different story, this has been created by ‘market development’ and poor land use practices, here, and the packaging industry and agriculture contribute the largest share

It is reported that Sri Lanka is fifth in a list of countries experiencing pollution due to plastics and polythene. The Marine Protection Authority estimating that we put out one billion pounds of plastics and polythene per year, into the environment, most of which, eventually wind up in the ocean. The application of agrotoxins, garbage and siltation from poor land use adds up to create the pollution ring around the coastal waters of Sri Lanka.  The garbage that we dump into our rivers and the untreated sewerage that we discharge directly into the sea have also contributed to  create this terrible condition that we see today. The garbage retained on land creates physically life threatening  situations as we saw from the tragedy of Meethotamulla dump. High urbanization means high concentration of garbage, as in most environmental and public health matters, there is no plan as yet on how to deal with this, just ‘create more constructions to hell with the consequences’ seems to be the motto. The hell of Meethotamulla is an example of the consequences of not planning for the consequences of population concentration by these ‘developers’ without consideration for their environmental or social impacts.  Examples of the abuse of our coastal ecosystems in the interest of ‘economic development’ are legion, the mangroves and coral reefs bear a sad testimony to the effect of this abuse on the ocean and confirm the disturbing image above.

The impact of increasing the pollution levels in the sea around us also has consequences for our developing tourist industry. Already there are many places in Sri Lanka, the Galle rampart and Kalpitiya for examples where, getting a scratch in the water means a very large cance of getting it infected by the load of bacteria in the water. The noose is tightening, that is plain to see, should we stand by and watch?

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Latest comments

  • 8


    Mr Senanayake has written another warning. A prophesy that will surely come to haunt us if nothing is done.

    Meethotamulla was an accident long forseen, but who cared? Money is made in our local waste industry, and the bastards who grow fat and rich could not care a fig for the lives lost, and affected. Anybody smart who comes into Colombo from the north, over the Kelani river bridges, has learned to hold their breath or endure the tell-tale smells of the myriad rubbish dumps. As for those in the city who eat the gottukolla and keera grown in the area, they had better have good health insurance to combat the doses of toxic material ingested through the salads eaten.

    The big shipping that use our offshore waters are having an easy time with our lax rules/laws. In any case what message did they get when a bunch of self-serving nutters ordered an harbour and an airport to be built in the middle of some of the most desirable fauna and flora one could find on this blessed planet.

    IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO ACT! Or we shall listen to the haunting curses of our children when this once beautiful island becomes one big rubbish dump; a pimple full of pus on the backside of India.

  • 2

    we are paying a price for appointing stupid illiterates to Parliament who are unaccountable. There economy is moreof the same.selling the country to the chinese and indians and sending our women as glorified prostitutes to the middle east. The rest are massaging in spas. Rural economy is ion a parlous state so is agriculture. The only answer is beg going fro japan now to Vietnam . The IMF was here recently. These b—- must be hung in Galle Face.

  • 4

    Thank you for educating us on this topic. Please write more on this and suggest the options available for way forward

  • 5


    When did you first notice everything you have typed above?

    We were led to believe that once the state got rid of Tamil terrorists everything was going to be hunky dory.

    What went wrong?

    Please tell us who select/elect the stupid illiterates to Parliament? Aren’t/weren’t you one of them?

    • 1

      sri lanka is a country run on the principle might is right. the politicians have resorted to violence when there is protest about injustice since independence,the politicians subjugate the people and keep them quiet by generously giving them jobs etc and encouraging sycophancy. The reason the politician can do it is because the Sri lankans are not kept apart by religious and communal politics. Native veddah you are one of the contributors through your comments of communalism. Next time when you write think of writing as a sri lankan but not as a Tamil.

    • 0

      “Please tell us who select/elect the stupid illiterates to Parliament? Aren’t/weren’t you one of them?

      Native Pot

      Aren’t / Weren’t you not one also ? Why calling the Kettle black ?

      • 2


        You have several options.

        You can vote for a particular candidate.

        You can refrain from voting, the laziest option most suitable for chattering classes and then complain about ballot rigging or electoral fraud.

        As a religious ritual get up early in the morning the day of elections, have a bath, have a hearty breakfast, go to the election booth, follow the queue, collect your ballot papers, spoil it, drop it in the ballot boxes, leave the booth, head held high, satisfied that one has performed one’s civic duty, go home with a clear consciousness, …. ring your friends and let them know how wise you were, while performing your civic duty you have refused to help elect crooks and made sure your vote has not been abused by candidates.

        But then one needs the courage to go aginst the tide, loyalty, and one’s conditioned mind.

  • 4

    When I saw an article by Dr. Ranil Senanayake I thought to myself, “Ah, here’s a man who has been talking about the environment for four decades telling us what to do about Meethotumulla”; and he does indeed make a reference to that tragedy.

    However, what he says here, giving exact figures, and comparisons that help us understand, is an even greater calamity that appears to confront the ocean around us.

    Ranil, I believe has a fine academic record, with a relevant PhD from Berkley University, California. He has been doing a good deal of research in to the possibilities of re-afforestation using indigenous species, just near one of the work sites of the notorious Uma Oya Scheme. It is a little late in the day for him, but would some younger academics not be able to form a team (with him on it, in some capacity), who will go in to ALL aspects of environment protection?

    Will the government listen? Maithri may; but what happens within the UNP? Who was Ranil’s grandfather? F.R. Senanayake, brother of D.S.? That may even be a DIS-qualification in this strange country.

    With our mere 22 million population, we are the fifth largest plastic & polythene polluters in the World? Really? Obviously manufacturers of plastics will want us to use (and discard) more and more.


    • 1

      He has a PhD from UC Davis.

      NOT Berkley !

      • 1

        Dear Perriamama,

        You must be right.


        I think that the rest of what I have said doesn’t contain too many inaccuracies.

        Sincere thanks for correcting me. I saw that article almost as it came on and wrote that comment. then found that I couldn’t post it because the CT site was undergoing some “maintenance” issue, although it was displaying all that had been put on already.

        I don’t know Dr R.S. particularly well; met him ages ago a couple of times. He certainly is dedicated to what he’s doing and I think that we ought to listen to him.

      • 0

        Hey P Mama – for someone who disses Ranil’s assertions on environmental issues without providing any meaningful or logical reasons (this refers to your comments on his previous post on ‘Water’), you sure seem to know details of his background.

        So do you know him personally, and if so, sure seems like you have an axe to grind – or are you a stalker with an agenda???

  • 2

    The good for nothing Doctor put in charge of Garbage Affairs.
    Another jehan Perera……….. these are PhD opportunists.

    Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs is now appointed as Minister of Garbage Affairs.
    Its none other than Dr. Harsha De Silva PhD (garbage affairs)
    I always wonder whether he obtained his PhD from an accredited Uni??

  • 1

    If I am not mistaken, there is a Ministry responsible for the environment & the President himself is in charge of this Ministry. Even if I am mistaken, with so many Ministries, there must be some Minister responsible for the environment or is it that the subject of environment over laps with so many other govt. bodies that it gets passed around with no body taking responsibility?

    In developed countries, pollution, particularly, the air quality, is of much concern & the Mayor of London is proposing an incentive for diesel car owners to scrap their cars. The use of polythene & plastics are restricted with a tax on polythene bags to discourage usage. Most types of plastics, including plastic bottles, are now recyclable but in SL, plastic containers & polythene wrappers are found in every public place. Gota did clean the city but all the rubbish was dumped in the countryside with no long term solution for the problem. So it’s up to academics like Mr Senanayake to educate the masses but more so, to put pressure on the uneducated politicians to take responsibility by holding them accountable.

    • 0

      Raj, yes, it does look like the President is the Minister in charge. A look at the website reveals a whole slew of ‘Directors’ and others in charge of various areas of the Ministry. It also has an “About Us” site which is most interesting, for the simple reason that when compared to the reality of what is happening (read Meethotamulla, for one) and what is certainly due to happen if the crazy schemes of the government come to pass (Port City, Hambantota to the Chinese, etc), it sure sounds like a load of Bull!

      The Central Environment Authority’s website includes “Vision” and “Mission” statements which have to be seen to be believed, in that what is stated is as remote as possible to what is taking place and that Ranil S has been reminding the Bozos in charge for many years.

      And if you check http://www.environmentmin.gov.lk/web/, you will find that none of the three ‘programs’ listed have been updated since October 2016. One wonders why the other environmental aspects this Ministry is responsible for is not listed for the Public to refer to and comment on.

      I’m sure the President has a massive amount of stuff to attend to, but if he doesn’t have the time, he should appoint someone who has the time and commitment to head the Ministry.

      After all, the future of our country and coming generations are at stake (as if that matters to our hypocritical politikkas!).

  • 1

    Dear Raj,

    Some of the pollution around us is inevitable, but quite a bit of it is because because we are obsessed with ideas like economic growth. Also we think that advertising, competition etc are beneficial. It may that they are: I just don’t pretend to know. However, we are definitely promoting various changes to life-styles; I agree with what you say:

    “The use of polythene & plastics are restricted with a tax on polythene bags to discourage usage. Most types of plastics, including plastic bottles, are now recyclable but in SL, plastic containers & polythene wrappers are found in every public place.

    Very few are even aware that plastic recycling numbers are to be found on almost all plastic-ware: with one exception! The guys who come collecting stuff that can be recycled usually offer plastic basins in exchange. Those don’t have re-cycling numbers!! Does this mean that THEY turn things out mixing the various types. The guys collecting plastics seem unaware of the significance of the numbers! Yes, amazing, isn’t it?

    You have also said,

    “So it’s up to academics like Mr Senanayake to educate the masses but more so, to put pressure on the uneducated politicians to take responsibility by holding them accountable.”

    Please look at this:


    No comments on that at all. I’ve checked. He has about fifty articles on Colombo Telegraph alone. Average responses less than ten, but on some occasions more. About two articles ago I had acknowledged his efforts but confessed that I read little of it myself.

    He has consistently been critical of mega development and coal power generation. He has been accused of having been largely silent during the Rajapaksa era, but his CT articles do begin in 2013 – fewer, certainly. Lastly, he has been accused of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.

    So, it’s we who have not read!

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