Focus/Spotlight

Marine pollution in Sri Lanka’s oceanic waters

By Tharumalee Silva

Environmental pollution has turned into an everyday topic. However, marine pollution has now become the most dangerous threat the planet faces. Living in a tiny island, people often do not pay attention to the effects of marine pollution, but now, it has seeped into the oceanic waters of the pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Tragedy struck Mount Lavinia beach on 25 June when a deceased baby dolphin washed up along the coastline; spectators stated that several Navy personnel were present at the beach at the time the incident occurred, and when determining the cause of death, it was revealed that the baby dolphin consumed several bags of plastic, which blocked its oesophagus, preventing the entrance of food into its system.

Furthermore, it was pronounced that 90% of the coral reefs surrounding Sri Lanka died due to various human-made factors and El Niño, which refers to a natural phenomenon that occurs when sea surface temperatures rise above normal levels over a period of time.

Marine litter

According to a report published by the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme, and South Asian Seas Programme, the collection of data on marine litter proved to be inconsistent and limited to certain areas. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, MEPA General Manager Dr. P.B. Teney Pradeep Kumara stated: “There is more land-based pollution than sea-based pollution in the sea.” The littering of beaches due to recreational and tourism activities is the main cause of land-based pollution.

Dr. Kumara also informed The Sunday Morning that MEPA also installed strainers in places where waste is disposed into the ocean to prevent plastic from entering ocean waters. “We have installed one in Trincomalee and we hope to introduce more in the coming years,” he said.

Invasive and alien species

“Another baited trap in the oceanic waters surrounding Sri Lanka is the introduction of invasive species and alien species,” said MEPA Deputy General Manager Jagath Gunasekara. Alien species are non-indigenous, exotic, non-invasive creatures who are introduced by humans (intentionally or unintentionally) outside their natural geographic range.

Invasive species are a subspecies of the established alien species. They have a tendency to invade habitats and are a threat to the biodiversity of the area to which they were introduced.

According to research findings by Gunasekara, a significant amount of harm is caused to the environment by ballast water discharge. The research paper titled “Overview of the Ballast Water Regulatory Regime” stated that “ecologically, new invasive species are introduced every nine weeks; economically, we lose billions of US dollars globally, while this may physically harm human beings with sudden cholera outbreaks and paralytic shellfish poisoning”.

According to MEPA statistics: “The marine litter survey across 22 selected beaches around Sri Lanka was conducted in 2016 under the ‘Capacity Building to Manage Marine Debris in Sri Lanka’ project, which was administered by MEPA with the assistance of the Korean Maritime Institute. The survey disclosed that the diameter of marine litter on the ocean across the areas pertaining to the aforementioned 22 beaches is higher than 25 mm. The amount of marine litter found in each location varied while the highest amount of marine litter was found in Kudawella, Matara”.

According to the MEPA General Manager, several measures can be adopted at home to reduce marine pollution.

“By promoting environmentally friendly, sustainable methods of living, we can reduce environmental pollution. Discontinuing the use of or reusing plastic containers may decrease the amount of plastic entering the ocean, which in turn will have a positive impact on marine pollution,” he said.

Waste management and maritime pollution

Sri Lanka’s disconcerting waste management policies no doubt gave birth to many manmade disasters such as the Meethotamulla garbage dump landslide, which killed 32 people and affected around 1,000 people according to the Disaster Management Centre.

Several attempts were made by the Government to improve waste management but almost all the attempts failed. In 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena prohibited the use of plastic and polythene. However, this measure was not implemented. According to a report titled “Trashing an Ocean: Sri Lanka’s Marine Pollution Problem” published by Environmental Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd. in 2017, the 14.6 million people residing in Sri Lanka’s coastal areas coupled with inefficient waste management forms a deadly combination as this leads to the residents dumping garbage in the ocean, overestimating the ocean’s natural ability to “self-clean”.

Further, the Central Environmental Authority initiated a 10-year waste management programme named the “Pilisaru Programme”, setting a goal for a “waste-free Sri Lanka”.

Bridging the gap between adequate waste management and maritime pollution, Sri Lanka Navy Media Spokesperson Lt. Cmd. Isuru Suriyabandara stated that people often do not realise that most of the waste they produce becomes a component of marine pollution when mismanaged.

“Every toffee wrapper and plastic shopping bag people throw out the window of their vehicle on to the road enter water streams which travel to the ocean,” he said.

He further stated that it was absolutely essential to be aware of how to adequately dispose of and recycle garbage at home. One should also reuse polythene bags and plastic containers and limit further purchase of these items.

“We must not point fingers at others or hold this as the responsibility of the Government. We must also work within our own homes and capacities to reduce the harmful effects of mismanagement of waste to save our oceans,” he concluded.