By 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?