Better regulation needed to prevent marine disasters

Maritime pollution: No longer a drop in the ocean


June 29, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Better regulation needed to prevent marine disasters

Within days of X-Press Pearl fire hundreds of dead marine animals washed ashore (Photo/Sri Lanka Port Authority)

X-Press Pearl, the cargo ship that sank off Sri Lanka, earlier this month, is just the latest shipping disaster to have struck. Over the decades, maritime pollution has reached dangerous levels due to accidents, spills, fires or simply dumping of wastes. It is time for governments to get together and crackdown on an industry that goes largely unchecked, despite patchy safety and pollution track record.

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After two weeks of on-board fire, the Singapore-registered container ship X-Press Pearl split into two earlier this month and sank just off the coast of Sri Lanka, while the other half followed suit soon afterwards.

The cargo ship was carrying 1,486 containers, including 23 tonnes of nitric acid, a highly corrosive and inflammable chemical. Even before the ship had begun to sink, dozens of containers fell off into the sea, spilling their contents. Within hours, the coastal area of Sri Lanka close to the site of the disaster was covered with millions of microgranules of plastics as well as other toxic material.

The ship also carried hundreds of tonnes of fuel oil that spilled in the sea, threatening marine life in one of the richest parts of the Indian Ocean, besides ruining some of the most pristine beaches of the country that is often referred to as the Emerald Island.

Sure enough, within days over 100 carcasses of turtles with throat and shell damage, as well as a dozen of dead dolphins and a blue whale, washed ashore. Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the environment ministry, told media that the animals died due to burns and also due to chemicals. Activists say that the actual number of marine animals that died due to the disaster could be several times more. Experts warned that Sri Lanka may have mildly acidic rains due to the disaster and also banned fishing in the area, impacting nearly 6000 fishing vessels.

Recurring mishaps

X-Press Pearl was just one of dozens of very serious shipping disasters that have occurred around the globe since the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989 which ran aground in Alaska, spilling millions of gallons of oil that contaminated over 2000 km of Alaskan coastline and caused the death of thousands of birds, fish and other animals. Reports suggest that almost 30 years later, despite a huge cleanup effort, traces of oil can still be found in Alaska.

Exxon Valdez was as severe a warning as possible to deliver to the world that it needed to be more cautious and protective of its seas. But it seems to have been duly ignored as the last 30 years have seen hundreds of marine accidents, including some matching or even exceeding the damage caused by Valdez, leaving deep impact on the marine life across the world, even as the oceans battled the toxic effects of climate change and global warming that have exacerbated every succeeding year.

Just last year has seen over a dozen major shipping disasters in places as distant as Brazil and Mauritius. In July last year, a Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef near Mauritius and within days spilled over 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil in the sea, leading to the worst-ever disaster to hit the pristine waters and beaches of the Indian Ocean island.

Growth without responsibility

With sharp rise in global trade over the past 30 years, shipping industry has increased multifold in size, both individual ships as well as the number of ships afloat around the world. This poses a twin set of problems for the world, both with serious impact on pollution and climate change.

While the modern ships may have better safety standards, but their sheer size means that the impact of even a single accident is several times more than the ships of smaller sizes, carrying the same cargo. One recent example of what the super-large sizes can mean to the environment or the seas is from the obstruction of Suez Canal by Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world. It remained blocked in the world’s busiest canal for nearly 10 days, leading to severe disruptions in the trade. Fortunately, it did not directly cause any pollution, but it gave a foretaste of how inadequately prepared the world and its ports are to handle super-sized ships, economical as they may be for shipping companies.

Even when the ships don’t meet with any mishap, they cause pollution, and a lot of it. First and foremost is carbon footprint of the shipping industry due to use of fossil fuels. Shipping industry contributes to over 3 pc of the global carbon dioxide emissions every year, almost the contribution of major carbon-emitting countries and this footprint has been growing, despite calls to curb them and several commitments by the industry to do so. In fact, if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Only the United States, China, Russia, India and Japan emit more carbon dioxide than this industry. Despite this, the emissions remain unregulated, with no curbs being imposed by any governments. Besides carbon, the shipping industry also releases tonnes of sulphur in the air, which is the primary cause of acid rain.

Shipping fleets should implement technical and operational measures to reduce global warming pollution immediately. Such measures include speed reductions, weather routing, fuel switching and specialised hull coatings. The IMO calculated that a speed reduction of just 10 pc across the global fleet would result in a 23.3 pc reduction in emissions. Hapag-Lloyd found that slowing some of their ships by just five knots, or 20 pc, resulted in savings of around 50 pc on fuel costs. Restrictions on vessel speed would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, and nitrous oxide.

They also need to review the design of ships and the materials used in order to cut their fuel consumption. They also need to invest in research and development to come up with options of cleaner fuels or cleaner ways of powering ships.

Of total global air emissions, shipping accounts for 18-30 pc of nitrogen oxide and 9 pc of sulphur oxides.
Another source of pollution is wastewater dumped by cruise liners. According to some studies, cruise liners dump about 970 m3 of greywater, from showers, laundry and cleaning activities, and 110 m3 of blackwater, mainly from sewage, that contains bacteria and viruses which are often fatal for marine life.

A large cruise ship of 3,000 passengers and crew generates an estimated 55,000 to 110,000 litres per day of blackwater waste. Estimates of greywater range from 110 to 320 litres per day per person, or 330,000 to 960,000 litres per day for the 3,000-person cruise ship.

Another hazardous product released by ships is bilge water or water from engines that is mixed with oil. A typically large cruise ship will generate an average of 8 metric tonnes of oily bilge water for each 24 hours of operation. Though there are processes and norms for filtration before release of bilge oil into the open seas, more often than not these are blatantly violated, leading to large-scale pollution.

The shipping industry has so far gotten away with polluting, only because the governments have failed to act. With limited time left, if at all any, to cut down the pace of global warming and to keep the rise in global temperatures to even below 2.5°C from the pre-industrial era, shipping industry needs to be reined in, and immediately.



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