My textbooks were filled with stories of how Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning and rich natural resources were so prized that it was successively colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British Empires for nearly four centuries.
I had no reason to question this: Located between China and the African continent, our teardrop-shaped island in the south of the Indian subcontinent seemed to be the geographic center of international trade.
Then there was the urban legend that Singapore’s father Lee Kuan Yew visited a newly independent Sri Lanka in the 1950s and said he would model his city-state on it. Shortly thereafter, Sri Lanka descended into civil war, while Singapore raced ahead, becoming a
global maritime hub and one of the busiest international ports in the world. It was only because of the war, we were supposed to believe, that Sri Lanka had not developed like Singapore. We all grew up imagining a newly prosperous Sri Lanka, a tropical paradise that was the natural hub of international shipping.
Impose yourself as a
maritime center remains at the heart of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical ambitions. In the process, however, the country became irreversibly indebted. In 2010, he used loans from China to build Hambantota port. In 2017, the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its loans and a majority stake in the port was rented in China for 99 years.
Despite stiff competition from major Indian ports, a Chinese-funded port city is being built in Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. China’s substantial investments in Sri Lanka’s Maritime Provinces have sparked a regional bidding war for control of the remaining container terminals in Colombo. China already owns 85% of the Colombo international container terminal; now Sri Lanka is
to negotiate with Japan and India for the control of the eastern and western container terminals.
With the country desperately in debt and under extreme pressure to
Not only to profit from the shipping industry, but also to prove that it has capable trading ports, it is not surprising that when a cargo ship approached the port of Colombo in May and applied for clearance to repair a dangerous chemical leak, the port authority obliged.
Sri Lankan Navy personnel clean up debris from the X-Press Pearl, which contained 25 tons of nitric acid and other chemicals. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne / EPA
According to a
declaration from the harbor master, Nirmal Silva, the vessel – the Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl – gave the port general warning on arrival, then at anchor requested permission to repair the leak.
“Such reshuffle activities are not uncommon in the port of Colombo,” said Silva. “This is normal, especially in a hub port like the port of Colombo. It is a service not only in our port but also in other ports in general. We have to be prepared to provide all of these services available in the shipping industry as a transshipment hub. “
Several other countries, however, did not feel such pressure to handle the compromised cargo. Media reported that the ship was refused entry to ports in Qatar and India before arriving in Sri Lanka. This was later denied in a
official statement from X-Press Feeders, the company that owns the vessel. Instead, the company said those ports had not accepted the leaked cargo.
“Requests had been made to both ports to unload a container that was leaking nitric acid, but the advice given was that there were no specialist facilities or expertise immediately available to deal with the leak. ‘acidic,’ the statement read.
Meanwhile, AFP News
reported that the vessel had informed its local shipping agent of an acid leak on board the vessel, but that the officer had not alerted local authorities.
The leak is believed to have sparked a fire that led to the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lanka’s history: a cargo ship full of dangerous chemicals
burn and sink just off the west coast of the island. The country faces an oil spill that could devastate the fishing industry and the coastal environment, as well as the threat of dozens of highly toxic chemicals on board, some of which have yet to be cataloged, and yet less recovered.
Thousands of miles from New York City, I cried as I watched the blazing fire, because of what it meant to my country’s economy and its most precious assets: beautiful beaches and unparalleled biodiversity. I was afraid of losing more ground to powerful countries in a geopolitical standoff if it puts more pressure on Sri Lanka’s struggling economy. Hopefully, oversight and accountability failures serve as a vital learning experience and boost long-awaited environmental safeguards to prevent a repeat of this disaster.
But the disaster has also damaged our collective dream of what we should be as a country. Desperate to prove ourselves at all costs in the service of our personal identity – and with the enormous debt we have incurred to secure that identity – Sri Lanka has been billed for more than just cleaning up. It has suffered a heavy blow for its reputation as an emerging maritime hub.
Will this catastrophe also be the time when Sri Lanka stops being burdened with unpayable debts and teaches its children a different vision – a vision that accepts that Sri Lanka is not Singapore, but a country that embraces the wonders of the ocean rather than treating it as a dumping ground – time will tell.