The X-Press Pearl disaster

Image Source: Sri Lanka Ports Authority

This week saw one of the worst environmental disasters of recent memory with the fire on board the Singaporean-owned X-Press Pearl cargo vessel off the coast of Sri Lanka’s Colombo Harbour. And while we brace for a possible leak from the fuel tanks of the now charred and sinking wreckage to spill as much as 350 metric tons of oil into the Indian ocean, the devastating damage already caused by its cargo of hazardous and noxious substances, and toxic plastic pellets, to both marine life and livelihoods of fishermen and others who rely on these waters for subsistence, cannot be overstated. But while this disaster has gained unprecedented media attention over the past two weeks, I have been struck by the feverish attempts of many — from opposition politicians to the broader public—to paint this disaster as yet another failure of government, in much the same vein as its inept handling of the economy on the heels of a crippling pandemic, or its bungling of vaccine rollouts. Eagerly shared news reports and social media posts have entertained claims as audacious as a deliberate sabotage (and insurance fraud) by the vessel’s local agents, to a larger government conspiracy involving much needed foreign exchange to the country (and personal coffers of elite politicians) in the form of compensation payments by the vessel’s overseas operators.

The evidence thus far however, points more towards a less sinister system of mundane procedural oversight than a failure of national governance (nor the moral repercussions of unscrupulous actors). What seemingly began as a nitric acid leak in one of the ship’s containers ignited a massive fire engulfing the vessel amidst attempts by the Sri Lankan navy, air-force, and Indian coast guard to rein in the flames with Co2, water, and dry chemical powder (DCP). While more questions than answers remain at this point, including how the fire ignited from an acid leak?; why the leak was not contained at Hamad Port (Qatar) or Hazira Port (India) where the ship called on prior to its scheduled arrival in Sri Lanka?; and why successive attempts to douse the flames by local authorities failed (or indeed make the situation worse)?. Also, was the cargo manifest not communicated in time or location of the affected container not identified early? did the port’s Technical team meet too late to discuss a suitable course of action? were instructions properly carried out? did mixing water and nitric acid exacerbate the situation? did the monsoon winds prevalent at the time complicate matters further? These are just some of the many concerns ongoing investigations will try to unravel over the next few days and weeks, but until we know for certain what happened, the corrosive public discourse and attacks by partisan media, disenfranchised politicians, and a pandemic-weary and cynical public, does little to resolve any underlying issues — which require facts and intelligence.

The fire on the X-Press Pearl is a monumental disaster with far reaching ecological and economic consequences, but simply branding it a failure of government eschews the need to address systemic issues which lie at the root of such tragedies. Blaming government only kicks the can down the road, with the vague assumption that a different government — albeit no less bounded by the existential constraints of a failed system — would have done things any different.

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