Monday, November 24, 2008

Straits safety not just littoral states' burden


There is a dire need for the international shipping community to ensure sustainable development of the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, writes H.M. IBRAHIM

"CARRYING capacity" refers to the number of individuals that can be supported in a given area within natural resource limits and without degrading the natural, social, cultural and economic environment for the present and future generations. Simply put: there is a limit to the number of eggs that a basket can carry without breaking the basket or dropping the eggs.

This basic concept of "carrying capacity" can be applied to all situations: the passenger capacity of a bus or an aircraft, cars on a highway or a roomful of people; indeed, in tourism, ecology and all other situations. The greatest danger when a system exceeds its carrying capacity is irreparable damage, impairing the system's ability to heal itself. This is well-accepted science in ecology, conservation and any natural system.

Between 1978 and 2003, there were 888 accidents in the Straits of Malacca. Fortunately, only a few were major accidents that damaged the environment, depositing oil sludge on tourist beaches, destroying the fishing nets and livelihood of fishermen, and reducing the fish supply to the population centres of the west coast of peninsular Malaysia.

These accidents included the MV Showa Maru in 1975, Nagasaki Spirit and Ocean Blessing in 1992, the Evoikos and Global Oripin in 1997, the MV Sun Vista and Natuna Sea, causing a total of 392,000 barrels of crude and fuel oil to be discharged into the straits.
The Straits of Malacca, connecting the Andaman Sea of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea of the Pacific Ocean, is the shortest sea route between India and China and one of the oldest and busiest shipping lanes in the world.

The alternative route, through the Lombok and Makassar Straits, is 1,000 nautical miles longer and takes a modern ship an extra three days to traverse, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars more to costs. For this reason, the straits carries more than 50 per cent of the world's trade and 30 per cent of worldwide shipments of oil and gas.

The vessel traffic in the straits increased from 43,965 in 1999 to 70,718 last year (see table) -- a 60.85 per cent increase. More than 60 per cent of these ships transported hazardous and noxious cargo. Through the efforts of the littoral states to enhance navigational safety in straits, with the support of Japan and in collaboration with the International Maritime Organisation, there has been a marked decrease in the number of maritime accidents.

Utilising innovations such as the Vessel Traffic System (VTS), Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) and mandatory ship reporting system (STRAITREP), shipping accidents decreased from 63 in 2001 to 23 last year.

However, traffic in the straits is expected to increase to more than 100,000 vessels by 2010 and 141,000 by 2020 (not counting cross-straits traffic). There may well be a "tipping point", beyond which any further increase would be too costly and hazardous.

In short, there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the straits -- at least, if current conditions are projected into the future. Congestion may even become self-limiting, in that increased accidents will cause insurance rates to rise and deter some traffic, or congestion may reach a point where it is safer, cheaper and faster to bypass the straits.

The Straits of Malacca is in one of the world's recognised "mega biodiversity" regions. To ensure the sustainable development of these resources, the government has formulated various policies on biodiversity, environment, fisheries and other natural resources related to the land and sea areas of the nation, entrusting the relevant departments to enforce the attendant regulations.

The establishment of the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (the equivalent of a Coast Guard) is another example of Malaysia's commitment to ensure safety and security in this important Sea Lane of Communication (Sloc).

More than half the vessels using the straits do not call at any littoral state's ports, and thus these ports receive no direct benefit from their passage. Yet they have borne the brunt of the burden of maintaining the safety of navigation and protecting the environment.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently revealed that the nation spent more than RM200 million on providing and maintaining various aids to navigation in the straits, as part of Malaysia's commitment to ensuring the safety, security and environmental protection of the straits.

The littoral states bear the costs and risk, while users reap the benefits of transit passage. In addition to the accidental risks, operational discharge from ships and actions by some unscrupulous ship masters in dumping sludge and solid waste further aggravate the situation.

As a responsible member of the international community, Malaysia takes the comprehensive and functional management of the Straits of Malacca very seriously. The carrying capacity of the straits must therefore be determined, to ensure the waterway continues to play its important role as a Sea Lane of Communication, provider of natural resources for the prosperity of the littoral states, and a mega biodiversity region.

Dialogue on these matters may at least educate littoral states and users alike on ways and means to cooperate. The Centre for the Straits of Malacca of the Maritime Institute of Malaysia is able and willing to offer such a forum and follow-up research.

Prof Dr Capt H.M. Ibrahim is director of research at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia
Source: NST Online

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