Can Sri Lanka be a power of geography?

What can we in Sri Lanka understand of these actions?

by Victor Cherubim       

Our land area of our island Sri Lanka is 65,000 sq. meters, while the sea or the Indian Ocean surrounding us is over 7.7 times. Yet, we are all the while concerned about our little island rather than the potential we can harvest from the sea around. The sea according to the Law of Sea Transport, forms part of our territorial waters.

In the same manner, the oceans around the world occur more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface and contain roughly 97% of all its water, measuring about 361.9 million square kilometres. This area is divided into five major basins: The Pacific, The Atlantic, The Indian, The Antarctic and the Arctic. 

Best-selling author of “The Power of Geography, “states “the land on which we live has always shaped us”. Is this anything new?

The impact geography can have on international affairs has often offered us an explanation for such geopolitical events, as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was once part of the USSR. This perhaps, is based on Russia’s need to retain access to warm water ports. Also some researchers state China’s action in Tibet is to enforce its border with India, though there are the natural mountains which can be natural boundaries. Recently, we saw the former President Donald Trump of “Make America Great again” wanting to build a brick wall with neighbouring Mexico. 

What can we in Sri Lanka understand of these actions?

Geography seems to be a factor in the choice of economic and foreign policy. Also it is no coincidence that the poorest countries in the tropics where it is hot, the lands less fertile, the terrain difficult to cultivate, water more scare, are the places where disease flourishes. Thus somecountriesbecause of their geographical location are just at a natural disadvantage.

We know that transport costs of international trade are also too high. 

However, there are other countries which seem to be prisoner of their geography without knowing how to use their location. We are told a large portion of the population growth over the next thirty years is expected to occur in these geographically disadvantaged regions. 

In Sri Lanka, we have periodically gone through turbulent times, whether it was our civil war over 30 odd years, the tsunami or the floods, now Covid-19 or other natural calamities. These events have made our modern history. 

We seem to be consumed with living beyond our means as well as constrained by our geography. 

It seems more or less we are “persecuted by our debt”. Our choices are limited by the political and the economic decisions we are forced to take at the present time. 

We also see all religions, culture, and language, anxious to interact with our local geography in more recent times, with people wanting more control of their destiny.

We may have hardly understood the cost of the 30 year war, or if we did, we were not ready to pay such a high price. We cannot change what has happened or the complexity of geopolitics in today’s world?  We need to get out of our burden, and the way we can do it as fast as possible, is to utilise our potential in our sea territorial water.

We are now having to meet our commitments as a nation and there is a price to pay which we will pay by cutting our unnecessary expense. We are even ready to get out of debt by going to the IMF. We hope to arrange a Reserve Facility –Special Drawing Rights- of US $ 800 million to tide us over our immediate commitments during August-September 2021. 

There is litany of actions we need to take for Sri Lanka to stabilise our foreign reserves which have dwindled by nearly half to US$ 4.2 billion, in order to pay off a sovereign bond repayment of US$ 400 million.  

We need to turn our tide fast and one way is to think out of the box?

Can we utilise our sea resource which extends to a protected territorial waters boundary –an extent of 22 km (12 nautical miles) beyond our coastline, which we are told covers an area of about 21,500 sq.km. This is an unutilised resource up to the present. We do not really know why or how we can?

This contiguous zone or band of water extending from the outer edge of our territorial area belongs to us and comprises part of our jurisdiction. 

How many of us know that there is no land mass beyond and below Sri Lanka extending all the way to the South Antarctic? 

We know that we are geographically in the middle of the sea shipping lanes/ route between East and West. Our strategic location commands a price which we need to optimise. 

We know shipping passes our territorial waters all the time to save both on their fuel costs as well as time of voyage to reach their destination ports. This is a lucrative business and needs to be tapped sooner rather than later.  Time spent at sea is a serious cost to shipping. Time is money. Fuel is money. 

Could Sri Lanka after due research consider levying a Transit Shipping fee to be paid in hard currency of all cargo vessels for use of our territorial waters in the foreseeable future? 

Could this levy help to reduce our debt over time? It may work out as a win-win solution to both shipping and for our economy?

What is the downside of this plan of action?

We may have to spend in order to save? We need monitoring of our territorial waters. That cannot be bad. We need a Coast Guard Cutter Service, by our Navy, if we don’t have same already? We need to plot a plan of action? It may take months, if not years, but the end game is to recover some funds to pay off our debt – from anunutilised economicsource? 

Would we, in the course of this exercise find that there is a cost for claiming this Transit Fee from Shipping?  We may find to our surprise that there is a demand to use our territorial waters by shipping far greater than we would wish or want to cope, particularly in at least one aspect in terms of polluting our seas, a cost too greater to contemplate?                                                                                  

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