What ‘else’ aboard ill-fated Pearl? 

The fire on the MV X-Press Pearl has been extinguished, and the authorities have started probing the incident. However, the adverse results of the incident have just begun, and several challenges lie ahead for Sri Lanka. 

Right off the bat, damages caused to marine and coastal environments and the expenses incurred during the process of extinguishing the fire can be named as the immediate impacts on Sri Lanka. However, they entail a bigger challenge, which is obtaining adequate compensation for all sorts of damages and expenses Sri Lanka had to bear, and it calls for more responsible and careful efforts. 

The truth is, Sri Lanka has not been able to gauge the true nature and extent of the damages caused by the substances released to the ocean during the fire caused, and from what we have seen, a considerable part of Sri Lanka’s western coastal area has been affected due to plastics and cosmetics. However, the damage we have not seen could be bigger, or worse, as information as to what exactly was on the container vessel is very limited. Reports say that in addition to plastics and cosmetics, the ship was carrying over 1,400 containers of nitric acid and other chemicals. But the ship, which appeared to be carrying containers to its full capacity when it caught fire, can carry up to 2,700 20 foot equivalent units (TEUs), or containers. However, sufficient information has not been made public as to whether there were more containers than the number mentioned in the official reports, and what the other chemicals were or what other substances were on the ship. 

Knowing and revealing what exactly was on the ship, or what exactly was released to the ocean during the fire, is extremely important, as without ascertaining it first, Sri Lanka cannot move forward. As a matter of fact, both assessing the nature of the damages caused to Sri Lanka’s marine and coastal environments and determining the compensation Sri Lanka should demand, depend on what was on the ship. However, whether Sri Lanka can count on the ship’s crew or the company to which the ship belongs to, to reveal what exactly was on the ship is a question. 

This is where Sri Lanka’s authorities need to make a responsible, unbiased intervention, and find out what was on the ship, and evaluate the damage caused to Sri Lanka. Now that salvors and Navy personnel have boarded the ship to assess the ship’s situation, Sri Lanka can keep hope to hear some information that still remains unknown. 

What was on the ship and what was released to the ocean is a matter of concern not only for Sri Lanka, because of the simple reason that human determined boundaries do not apply to the ocean. Whatever the substances that were released to the ocean as a result of the fire are most likely to be dispersed across a large portion of the Indian Ocean by the ocean current, regardless of the boundaries we have set, and those substances are most likely to cause a damage more or less similar to the damages Sri Lanka’s marine ecosystems are facing. Therefore, this should be a matter of concern for Sri Lanka’s neighbouring countries, especially India and the Maldives, and also any country that is concerned about international waters. 

In this context, getting the support of international experts may also be highly beneficial, and India has already joined in this endeavour. 

Whether Sri Lanka could have doused the fire much earlier is a topic of discussion, and the process of dousing the fire was also questioned by many on procedural and scientific grounds. While the authorities respond to that concern, at the very least, Sri Lanka as a country deserves to be adequately compensated for the damages it suffered and is likely to suffer in the coming few months, even though no amount of money can actually compensate for them.