A. Situation analysis
Description of the disaster
On 20 May 2021, cargo ship “X-PRESS PEARL with 1,486 containers onboard carrying dangerous cargo; 25 tonnes of nitric acid, caustic soda, solid sodium methoxide solution, cosmetics, methanol and vinyl acetate including microplastics, plastic pellets together with other cargo caught fire about nine nautical miles (16 km) off the coast of Colombo commercial shipping harbor. The fire continued to burn till the end of May and several small explosions were heard from the container ship during the fire. Sri Lanka Navy, Airforce, Coast Guard supported by the Indian Navy worked around the clock to contain the fire for nearly two weeks. The firefighting was made complicated by the southwest monsoon rains/ high winds and highly flammable poisonous cargo. The 25 crews of Indian, Philippines, Chinese and Russian nationals were evacuated and are currently being treated at hospitals in Colombo. One crew member was tested positive for COVID-19.
According to Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), this is Sri Lanka’s worst environmental disaster in its history with unimaginable consequences to the marine environment. The situation was brought under control by 1 June 2021 and the fire was contained, although thick smoke plumes were seen emitting from the ship as well as small explosions continued to be heard from the ship. The MEPA was able to go to the ship only after the fire was put out and could assess the situation. This is the time when they could share also the first preliminary assessment report, and the coordination could start with SLRCS.
The fire caused spillage of damaged containers, microplastics, an estimated 3 billion tiny plastic pellets, chemicals and other harmful toxic substance into the sea. The flotsam was spread across vast areas on the western side of the coastline affecting the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara.
Chemical spills and plastic pellets have caused massive damages to the coastline, natural marine environment and ecosystem including damages to several popular tourist areas and resorts. Beaches were thickly coated with plastic pellets; microplastics and some oil slicks were visible in the water. The plastic pallets used to make polythene bags and other plastic products have already caused fatal damages to marine life and a number of dead sea turtles, fish and birds were seen along the coastline. Local people were strictly advised not to touch any of the debris as it could be highly toxic and harmful to the human body.
Fishing has been banned about 50 km stretch of the coastline mainly in Gampaha and Colombo districts and according to the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, more than 16,500 fisher folks and their families living along the Western coastline have been affected. The fisheries sector of Sri Lanka consists three main sub sectors, namely coastal, offshore and deep sea. Coastal fishing community is the most vulnerable as they are daily income earners, and they are the ones severely affected by this disaster. Prior to this incident, the fishermen could not venture into the sea for two weeks as they were warned of an adverse monsoon weather conditions with heavy rains in the western coastal belt. The fisheries sector has already been affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this incident has further exacerbated the conditions of lives and livelihoods of fishing communities.
Although some experts believe that some of the oil must have burnt with the fire, authorities however are preparing to face an oil spill as the ship had 278 tonnes of bunker fuel oil, 50 tonnes of gas oil and 20 containers of lubricating oil. Oil spills can have potentially devastating impacts to the marine environment and livelihoods of fishing community. MEPA has developed a contingency plan to deal with the potential oil spills and deployed assets and personnel to set up barriers around immediate vicinity of the ship, lagoon entrances as well as other identified locations along the beach. The extent of environmental damage is yet to be assessed in detail. However, experts believe that the ecological damage caused by this disaster is massive and unimaginable with long term negative consequences. NARA and MEPA are currently working on assessing the ecological damage. Click here to see the map of affected area.