Thursday, 26 April 2012

Senior Indian officer fined for fraudulent sea-service documents in UK

Indian national Boorzeen Murzban Dantra has been fined a total of £7,603.21 including costs by a Southampton court for charges relating to breaches of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. Dantra pleaded guilty to producing fake discharge and watchkeeping certificates that claimed he had served for 19 months on two anchor-handling vessels; he used these to support his application for the Orals Examination for a Masters Certificate of Competency (CoC). This was accepted and the appropriate documentation was issued. 

This happened in January last year. However, the Enforcement Unit of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) discovered in October 2011 that Dantra's documents were forged; Dantra had instead worked on an Offshore Floating Storage Unit (FSO), and had actually worked on one anchor handling vessel, not two. His documents were found fraudulent by the MCA. Moreover, his sea time on the FSO did not meet eligibility requirements for a Masters CoC.

"This is a worrying offence as lots of us travel by sea, we expect properly qualified Masters to be in charge,” the chairman of the Southampton court bench commented at the hearing. 

MCA's Roger Towner was severely critical of Dantra as well. “A Master's Certificate of Competency places great trust and responsibility on the holder. His (Dantra's) attempt to defraud the certificate structure devalues the certificate that others have worked hard to achieve,” he said, adding that Dantra, as Master, would have potentially placed his vessel, his fellow seafarers and the public at risk with the fraud.

Somali Pirates acquire SAM missiles and mines in arsenal

Judith van der Merwe of the Algiers-based African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism has revealed that Somali pirates have got hold of mines and shoulder held missile launchers from the troubled State of Libya thousands of miles away from Somalia, and are likely to use them against commercial shipping. 

“We found that Libyan weapons are being sold in what is the world’s biggest black market for illegal gun smugglers, and Somali pirates are among those buying from sellers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries,” she said.  “We believe our information is credible and know that some of the pirates have acquired ship mines, as well as Stinger and other shoulder-held missile launchers,” Van der Merwe told Reuters at an Indian Ocean naval conference.

There has been no independent confirmation of this development; Singapore's  Rear Admiral Harris Chan, s former commander of naval Task Force 151 in the Gulf of Aden, has said that there is no evidence that Somali pirates have access to sophisticated weapons beyond AK47s and RPGs 'at this stage'.  Experts say that it is possible that pirates are trying to build up an arsenal for use against EU sea and air forces in the area as the EU takes the battle against the pirates on land. Yesterday's reports of unidentified aircraft attacking pirate bases in Somalia indicate that the battle there may well be escalating.

Van der Merwe says that the information on mines and SAMs was obtained from interviews with gun smugglers, pirates and other sources.  “What we are seeing is a decrease in the number of successful attacks, but an increase in the ransom amounts paid out, and the fear is that better armed pirates could risk more or pose a greater challenge when facing capture,” she said.

Lloyd's warns of risks of Arctic oil rush.

A new report by Lloyd's of London confirms what environmentalists have long claimed- that there are huge risks associated with the rush for oil in the Arctic. A Chatham house report warns that there are 'multiple ways in which ecosystems could be disturbed' because of unbridled economic activity in the pristine region, that is already feeling the consequences of climate change. It predicts that it is "highly likely" that this will happen.

Although such concerns are not new, Lloyd's is the first major insurance market that has gone on record to highlight risks associated with commercial exploitation of the Arctic.  Lloyd's CEO Richard Ward says that companies should think carefully before rushing in to exploit Arctic resources "before research is carried out and the right safety measures put in place". His statement comes at a time when close to a hundred billion British Pounds worth of investment is estimated to flow into the Arctic oil industry over the next ten years, with Total, Cairn Energy and Shell some of the frontrunners in the race. In addition to oil, other minerals are to be excavated; the Guardian reports that Lakshmi Mittal is planning a new mine- with an estimated £14bn of iron ore- 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

Even as the Lloyd's report warns that a future oil spill is the "greatest risk in terms of environmental damage, potential cost and insurance", it warns that the understanding of the region is yet incomplete and that the Arctic consists of several ecosystems  "highly sensitive to damage" in the long term.  It raises the sceptre of pollutions from mines, nuclear waste, weapons testing and oil and urges "baseline knowledge about the natural environment and consistent environmental monitoring".  Unclear legal boundaries will add to the tardiness of a response to an environmental incident, Lloyd's says.

"Other than the direct release of pollutants into the Arctic environment, there are multiple ways in which ecosystems could be disturbed, such as the construction of pipelines and roads, noise pollution from offshore drilling, seismic survey activity or additional maritime traffic as well as through the break-up of sea ice," it says, adding that investment is needed to "close knowledge gaps, reduce uncertainties and manage risks" and to enable "safe economic activity. Additionally, migration patterns of caribou and whales in offshore areas may be affected.  Lloyd's says that "full-scale exercises based on worst-case scenarios of environmental disaster should be run by companies". 

In a separate development, the intergovernmental Arctic Council's taskforce is understood to be working on producing a mechanism that would- given the inadequate response to major oil spills elsewhere in the past- hasten clean up and compensation payments in the event of a calamity in the frigid north. This is supposed to be ready by 2013, and "may include an international liability and compensation instrument" missing so far, says the Guardian. 

Environmentalists have long pushed for measures to ban drilling of oil in the Arctic, saying that the environmental damage after a potential oil spill there will be catastrophic. Experts have said that the natural biodegradation of oil in the Arctic will be extremely slow and unpredictable in such an event and that the hostile environment would make cleanup operations very difficult and very expensive.  One hopes that the Chatham House report will reinforce these concerns and will result, eventually, in workable solutions and mechanisms that mitigate the risk associated with drilling or mining in the Arctic.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Crossing the Atlantic, solo, in a canoe.

Belying fears that he was dead, thirty year old Hungarian sportsman-architect Gabor Rakonczay has become the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a canoe alone. Paddling across the wide expanse from Europe to the Caribbean, Gabor's 3,500 mile long epic voyage took 76 days, during which his canoe capsized twice. What's more, three weeks into his adventure, he was left for the remaining fifty days without any means of communication with the outside world. Some feared he was dead, but his wife Viktoria never lost hope.

Gabor made his remarkable journey in a small specially designed 24.6 foot-long canoe- named Vitez, or 'valiant' in Hungarian.- He commenced his hazardous voyage at Lagos, Portugal late last year, stopping en route at the Canary Islands for supplies. Despite all odds and despite the capsizing, Gabor made it to Antigua's English Harbour almost three weeks ahead of his original estimate. The London based Ocean Rowing Society International has acknowledged Gabor's accomplishment. 

Gabor's communications equipment was irretrievably damaged when his canoe capsized, which meant that he was out of touch with the outside world since February 6. To add to his family's worries, the voyage was made without a satellite tracking system that would have let him send out a message saying he was all right. 

"The supplier raised the price at the last minute and I decided to leave without one because it was not possible to postpone the trip," Gabor said. "This trip was the first time I didn't have a tracking system and the first time I really would have needed one." 

Gabor tried to contact passing ships using flares thrice, but failed to communicate with them. "Some slowed and even changed direction as they likely picked me up on their radars, but I was often surrounded by waves 4 meters high and the canoe is less than one meter high, so it's most likely that they simply weren't able to see me." 

Back in Hungary, Viktoria did not lose hope after she lost contact with her husband. She even kept on updating a blog about Gabor's voyage daily, estimating the Vitez's position based on prevailing weather and current conditions. Gabor is touched at the confidence she and his family placed on his abilities. "I was positively surprised in those at home ... because everyone was certain that if I run into any difficulties, I'll be able to solve them," he said. Viktoria told the Hungarian media that she trusted in her husband's "mental state, skills, and experience to face the hardest of tasks". 

A relaxed Gabor told reporters at the finish, "It was a great relief to reach port because it meant completing the journey and because my family could finally know for sure that I was OK." 

"I was very interested in discovering what it's like to be all alone on a ship in the ocean," he added. "It was my childhood dream." 


Monday, 16 April 2012

Well from Hell- North Sea's Elgin platform.

Campaigners have warned that the high pressure gas leak that started at the 'Elgin' North Sea offshore platform last weekend could trigger an oil spill that would be devastating to the environment in the Shetlands, Faroe islands and the Norwegian coast. These warnings have come even as surveillance flights by operator Total SA detected gas-condensate sheen around the platform off the Aberdeen coast that is by now six miles long. Activists are saying that the Elgin incident is yet another proof of the dangers posed by deep-water exploration and extraction.

All the 238 workers have already been evacuated from Elgin. Another operator- Shell- has evacuated non-essential personnel from its nearby rigs. A two nautical mile exclusion zone has been enforced around Elgin, although Total is insisting that there is no threat of explosion.

Fears have been magnified because the Elgin platform is now surrounded by a giant gas cloud; Total says that drilling a relief well- one option to stop the high-pressure leak- can take up to six months. Another option is sending engineers to 'kill' the leak, but Total is hesitant at putting its employees at risk. The company has called in experts from the US, including 'Wild Well Control,' the firm that was involved in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster- that countries largest- not so long ago.

The exact cause of the accident is still not known, but gas is believed to have started leaking when the Elgin wellhead was being plugged after commercial production of gas was stopped after a decade of service.  Oceanographer Dr Simon Boxall told the BBC that it was unusual that Elgin had been drilling 3.1 miles into the seabed. "It is a very deep well. The gas they are bringing up is what we call sour gas. That gas has a high proportion of hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide and that makes it very flammable and quite poisonous".

 Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead tried to play down the incident, adding that "any gas leak on an evacuated offshore installation is, of course, deeply worrying," but environmentalists are concerned. "Elgin is sending methane into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas, so there is some environmental impact at the moment. There is also oil in that well, and Total needs to move before an oil spill becomes part of this leak," said Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland. Adds Greenpeace UK advisor Charlie Kronick, "The U.K. industry, unions and regulatory authorities say they have the best and tightest safety regime in the world, but this leak proves that for all their efforts it remains unsafe."

"The industry is trying to squeeze out the very last of the Earth's reserves and companies such as Total, BP and Royal Dutch Shell are pushing themselves into exploration that is extremely difficult, costly and risky", he added. "We should accept that we are at the end of the oil and gas age."

Frederic Hauge, an activist and head of 'Bellona'- a Norwegian group monitoring the oil industry- points out that workers on Elgin struggled in vain for 14 hours before they were evacuated. "They saw the sea bubbling with gas under the platform," he said. "This is quite shocking. This situation is only going to get bigger and bigger."

"This is the well from hell," he said. "This problem is out of control."

PMO identifies river routes for development

Will things be different this time?




Critics will say that they have seen such initiatives mooted for the last many decades but no real progress has ever been made. Nonetheless, media reports indicate that the promotion of the inland water transport (IWT) system in the country is once again threatening to take centre stage in the deliberations of the powers that be. The Hindu Business Line reports that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Office has identified several new river routes for development; the PMO is pushing for the private sector to invest in India's much neglected IWT system.

The government had announced a “fast-tracking” in IWT development last month, with media reports saying that IWT for passenger and freight movement would "lower operating costs and environmental pollution than for road, rail or air options. It could relieve pressure on the other modes, which face their own constraints". Indian figures for IWT are dismal. Only 0.15 percent of domestic surface transport is carried by IWT, compared to 9 percent in China and a staggering 32 percent in Bangladesh. India, with 14.500 km of inland waterways, uses just 5,700 for navigation by mechanised vessels. Critics- and a report by a 2006 Parliamentary Standing Committee- allege step motherly treatment to IWT, besides inadequate allocations and improper fund utilisation.

Analysts say that much needs to be done- and quickly- for the Indian IWT system to become a serious and viable contender for the carriage of goods and passengers in the country's rivers. Some of these routes pass through Bangladesh; particularly affected are movements of foodgrain from Kolkata to Tripura and container barges from Pandu in Gauhati to Kolkata, says the Hindu, adding that ONGC pipe movement to the North East is also critical. Bangladesh has not entertained the Indian request that a full-fledged port be developed at Ashuganj in that country so far- that location is a key point for Indian IWT movement.

India also needs to ensure, says the Business Line, that it promotes stable two-way traffic within the IWT system. "Even large cargo volumes in one direction cannot make a river service viable," the paper's analysis points out, adding that an additional issue is that sections of some rivers dry up and are usable only in the monsoons. Other experts point out that IWT should be part of the National Maritime Development Programme, and the integration of the IWT with other modes of transport is crucial. Centre-State coordination becomes very important in this scenario.

The possibility of the involvement of the private sector in IWT has been welcomed by many, although it remains to be seen if there will be substantial interest. The PM's focus on IWT is also encouraging, and so is Shipping Ministry's announcement, last month, that the Dredging Corporation of India is augmenting its fleet of dredgers keeping port and inland waterways requirements in mind.

The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system from Allahabad to Haldia was declared National Waterway Number 1 two and a half decades ago; it has never really taken off since then. One hopes that the government- led by the Prime Minister- is serious this time round, because there is no doubt that river transport and the IWT system are critical to the Indian economy.