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Australia to assist Sri Lanka in developing a comprehensive national maritime disaster preparedness mechanism

The Ocean Affairs, Environment & Climate Change Division of the Foreign Ministry, together with the High Commission of Australia to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, held a multi-stakeholder meeting recently, to discuss international best practices, application of Systems Engineering model to work on the vision, mission and needs of Sri Lanka to establish a holistic and state-of-the-art Maritime Safety Authority. 

The discussion was carried out to learn from the Australian experience on managing maritime disasters, in the aftermath of the MV-X Press Pearl, which is considered as the worst such disaster that ended up with polluting the ocean with a cargo containing large quantities of hazardous and noxious materials, chemicals and plastic nurdles.

On the 20 May 2021, MV X-Press Pearl, caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka – leaving in its wake an environmental disaster that not only the island, but many littoral states of the Indian Ocean will have to live with for decades. For days it stood burning off the coast of Sri Lanka, plumes of thick dark smoke that could be seen from miles away. But the X-Press Pearl has now fallen silent, lying half sunken off the coast of Sri Lanka, its hull resting on the shallow ocean bed. But though the flames have now been doused – the problems have only just begun. While there have been shipwrecks before, Sri Lanka has never faced one with such poisonous cargo.

Chairing the meeting, Actg. Additional Secretary, Ocean Affairs, Environment & Climate Change, Hasanthi Urugodawatte Dissanayake highlighted that, if there is to be any upside from this incident, it would be by serving as a catalyst for building a more resilient system to prevent and respond to maritime disasters in the future. This means prioritizing maritime emergency preparedness and management through development of a maritime disaster preparedness plan, strengthening the institutional basis for its implementation with adequate capacity building for the staff of relevant agencies.

High Commissioner of Australia to Sri Lanka David Holly stated that, to achieve this, a collective initiative by the Government of Sri Lanka and its international friends and partners is needed. He expressed his appreciation to the government of Sri Lanka and in particular to the Foreign Ministry for coordinating this meeting as such coordination is pivotal to a successful outcome. The High Commissioner went on to state that to ensure that support is delivered efficiently, a mechanism needs to be setup for accepting and facilitating international assistance to avoid overlaps and that key gaps are left unaddressed. 

High Commissioner David Holly emphasized further that Australia’s approach to maritime disaster preparedness may not be the best fit for Sri Lanka. However, His Excellency stated that the Australian government is ready to assist Sri Lanka in building capacity to develop the most suitable system for Sri Lanka. The High Commissioner also highlighted that having such a maritime disaster management entity in Sri Lanka could serve not only to address disasters in Sri Lankan waters and Sri Lanka’s Search and Rescue region, but to act as a regional centre to complement other such entities in the Indian Ocean.  

Sri Lanka’s requirements for a Maritime Disaster Preparedness Mechanism/Authority from a defence viewpoint were explained by Chief of Staff Sri Lanka Navy Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayarathna, while Sri Lanka’s marine environmental conservation requirements were explained by Chairperson Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) Dharshani Lahadhapura, Sri Lanka Port’s Authority Harbour Master Nirmal Silva delivered a brief presentation on the current wreck removal process of the MV-X Press Pearl. 

Australian High Commission Capt. Ian Cain, Defence Adviser presented a perceptive and informative presentation on the considerations for establishing a maritime disaster management authority in Sri Lanka, using the Systems Engineering approach, as considered by Australia in setting up of their own agency, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). He explained further that the Australian model may not necessarily be the ideal system for Sri Lanka, but how a Systems Engineering approach would ensure that we focus on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’, which would assist us in developing a system based on our current capacity and resources. 

The Foreign Ministry developed an initial working draft for a Maritime Disaster Preparedness Mechanism for Sri Lanka in September 2021, and has handed over the process to the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, which heads the Committee established to develop the said mechanism. The Committee is currently in the process of fine-tuning the mechanism together with the relevant stakeholders. Foreign Ministry is also working with stakeholders to bring the issue of marine pollution and immediate recovery to global level, particularly caused by plastic nurdles.

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