The ‘kapal simen’ wreck – what’s next?

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

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LETTER | Up to six tonnes of diesel and hundreds of litres of engine oil floated from Penang heading towards Perak when a Hong Kong vessel, Xin Yi Yi, hit the remains of “Kapal Simen” threatening fish and shrimp farms and the coastal environment along several kilometres of northern Perak’s coast. This is just one of the hundreds of maritime accidents taking place within Malaysian waters in the Strait of Malacca yearly.

What’s next for Malaysia?

Vessel source pollution from accidental spills is not uncommon in Malaysia. Located in the middle of the Malay Archipelago, the Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route is Malaysia’s crucial sea line of communication. Every year, the Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route records shipping movements of more than 70,000 vessels, making it the busiest maritime route in the Asia-Pacific region.

The existence of a number of navigational hazards in the Strait of Malacca and towards its opening to the South China Sea has made navigation difficult through the straits which may ultimately result in maritime accidents. Maritime accidents entail catastrophic effects on the marine environment in the affected area.

As a state party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (LOSC), Malaysia has limited rights to suspend the passage of ships through its territorial sea. Could the proposed designation of a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) be an option for Malaysia?

A PSSA is an area that needs special protection through action by IMO because of its significance for recognised ecological or socio-economic or scientific reasons and which may be vulnerable to damage by international maritime activities. Currently, there are 14 PSSAs world-wide that have been designated as a PSSA by the IMO. Out of these, only the Tubbataha Reefs in the Philippines is the only designated area in Asian waters.

The PSSA Revised Guidelines clarify that in addition to meeting at least one criterion in relation to ecological, social, cultural and economic aspects, the proposed area for PSSA designation should also be an area which is at risk from international shipping activities.

The Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route is collectively considered as an important trading route. The rich cultures brought to the two dominant ports along the Strait of Malacca – Penang and Malacca – by innumerable travellers and traders over the centuries have intermingled and created a beautiful harmonious society of different races, each with its own distinct and unique features.

As a result, both Malacca and Georgetown, Penang, were declared World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2008.

The Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route is also located within a zone of mega-biodiversity encompassing a variety of habitats and productive marine and coastal ecosystems that include mangrove forests, extensive seagrass beds, mudflats and coral reefs that support numerous species of flora and fauna.

In addition, this maritime route is home to a number of important fishing grounds which are crucial for the thriving fishing industry of Malaysia.

As a result of their socio-economic importance, the coastal areas facing the Strait of Malacca and Singapore towards its eastern opening to the South China Sea support a relatively high population density, with many cities or urban metropolitan areas concentrated towards the coast such as the cities of George Town, Malacca, Johor Baru and the Klang Valley conurbation in Malaysia with Medan, Dumai and Pekanbaru in Indonesia as well as the city-state of Singapore.

The Strait of Malacca- South China Sea route is indubitably crucial for international shipping activities. These heavy shipping movements have increased the risks of maritime accidents, which take place in this maritime route every year and result in oil and hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) spills, coastal soil erosion and low coral reef population development.

Based on these facts, views have been expressed that the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea may together be a logical candidate to be designated as a PSSA.

A PSSA designation is not a “stand-alone” regime. States that wish to have marine areas under their jurisdiction designated as PSSAs must submit their proposals to the IMO with the proposed Associated Protective Measures (APMs) to be considered by the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). The APMs could be in the form of areas to be avoided, the establishment of a non-anchoring zone or special routeing system, designed to reduce the risks of maritime accidents.

Once these APMs are implemented under the auspices of the IMO, States are expected to be bound by such measures.

The proposed designation of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea may entail a number of difficulties. Malaysia would have to seek the co-operation of Indonesia and Singapore in order to facilitate such a designation as the jurisdiction over the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea are shared with these neighbouring countries. In fact, Malaysia’s effort to designate areas around Kukup in 2017 as a PSSA did not work out as planned as it received protests from Indonesia.

In addition, both the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea are huge maritime areas encompassing large marine ecosystems. Therefore, the designation of the whole Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea as a PSSA may not be entirely feasible. Therefore, a thorough study has to be made in order to ascertain which areas within the Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route are to be designated as a PSSA.

The Strait of Malacca-South China Sea route is located considerably within Malaysian waters. This route is traversed by more than 70,000 vessels annually. Maritime accidents take place in these waters every year, causing environmental degradation which may adversely affect Malaysia. The Kapal Simen wreck that foundered Xin Yi Yi is just one of the hundreds of accidents affecting the well-being of Malaysian waters in the Strait of Malacca.

The proposed PSSA designation may be one of the options that Malaysia could resort to in combating pollution in its waters. Such a proposal may entail protests from a number of states due to its controversial nature. Nevertheless, Malaysia’s effort in its attempt to designate Kukup as a PSSA should be continuously supported to further protect the marine environment of Malaysian waters vulnerable to shipping activities. If such efforts are not taken, the Kapal Simen wreck would likely remain a yearly incident affecting us all.

The writer is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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