Will Sri Lanka’s Food Security Sink with the X-Press Pearl?

On May 21, 2021, the X-Press Pearl erupted into flames about 18 kilometers northwest of Colombo, Sri Lanka, while awaiting permission to enter port. The fire is believed to have been caused by the chemicals aboard the cargo ship, which was carrying 1,486 containers, including 350 tons of fuel oil and 25 tons of nitric acid. Efforts to pull the ship farther out to sea have failed, and the boat’s sinking is imminent. Sri Lanka now faces an environmental disaster, and coastal communities—especially those that rely on fishing to sustain their livelihoods—are at risk.

Q1: How severe is the impending environmental disaster?

A1: As of June 3, 2021, the X-Press Pearl reported no signs of leaking oil. However, bags of nurdles—small, pellet-sized pieces of plastic—are washing up on miles of coastlines. Nurdles are the raw material used to manufacture plastic products and are not a far cry from the kinds of microplastics banned in the United States since 2015. These beads do not biodegrade and remain in waterways virtually forever unless painstakingly removed. For this reason, and because they are stored in sacks that can easily tear, environmentalists are vocal about changing the way nurdles are transported.

Currently, Sri Lanka’s coastlines near the site of the X-Press Pearl, to the southern tip of the island, are covered in metric tons of nurdles. These plastics are not biodegradable, and they could also be highly toxic due to contamination from the X-Press Pearl’s chemicals leaching into the surrounding ocean. Consequently, they pose a significant threat to marine life, other wildlife, and the humans that come in contact with them. Of serious concern are fish, as they are not just a source of nourishment for people, but also for countless seabirds and other marine animals that contribute to a well-functioning marine ecosystem.

Q2: How is this impacting fisheries? 

A2: Nearly 270,000 Sri Lankans work in fishing, including processing, distribution, trade, and boatbuilding and maintenance, and fisheries alone contribute to just under 3 percent of the county’s GDP. Sri Lanka’s total fisheries production increased over elevenfold in the past sixty years, even as the contribution of agriculture to Sri Lanka’s economy has plummeted in the same period.

Three billion people worldwide depend on the health of the world’s oceans to sustain themselves, but the same marine ecosystems that provide life are becoming increasingly fragile. Like many coastal communities across the globe, Sri Lanka struggles with overfishing, erosion, and environmental degradation. The imminent sinking of the X-Press Pearl further complicates an already vulnerable livelihood.

Fish and other marine animals can easily mistake nurdles for food. Simply put, ingesting nurdles is bad for any creature. The likelihood of these nurdles absorbing chemicals from the spill, particularly nitric acid, is high, making them that much more dangerous for the fish when swallowed and for the people who rely on those fish for food.

The global fishing industry is still recovering from Covid-19 lockdowns and disinformation that touching, cooking, and consuming fish could potentially spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus. There already has been a moratorium on fishing along 50 miles of the Sri Lankan coast for the past 14 days where nitric acid has leaked into the water and nurdles are washing ashore. The contamination of the fish stock is devastating enough. For these communities, every day off the water means forgoing a day’s worth of income—and often multiple meals.

Q3: What does this mean for food security? 

A3: The X-Press Pearl disaster affects Sri Lanka’s food security in two ways: by threatening incomes for those who rely on fisheries for their livelihoods, and by threatening all Sri Lankan consumers who rely on fish as a source of essential nutrients. Fisheries play a vital role in alleviating hunger and malnutrition in Sri Lanka as nearly 70 percent of animal protein consumption come from this sector. Fish are also a bioavailable source of zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12, and fatty acids. Without these micronutrients, a person is more likely to experience reduced early child cognitive development, stunting or wasting, and greater risk for infectious and noncommunicable diseases

In October of 2020, rising rates of malnutrition were designated “a real risk” by the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations due to shocks and disruptions to the country’s food systems related to Covid, particularly by limiting distribution of nutritious food to Sri Lankans. On top of Covid-related disruptions, a decline in availability due to the fishing ban, as well as a decrease in demand for fish over fears of contamination, could lead to further deteriorations in human health.

Q4: What is being done to quell the disaster? 

A4: The Sri Lankan authorities have begun an investigation of the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl. The fisheries minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, shared a strategic plan, including keeping booms and skimmers on close standby if (or when) oil spills from the ship. He also said the government would compensate fishermen for their expected losses.

As for the contaminated beaches, Sri Lankan soldiers have been deployed—often in hazard material suits—to clean the affected beaches. By comparison, a similar, nontoxic, nurdle spill in Hong Kong in 2021 required more than 7,000 volunteers to assist in clean up.

At present, at least 4,500 fishermen are requesting financial aid.  

Eilish Zembilci is the program manager for the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Caitlin Welsh is the director of the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program
Eilish Zembilci
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program