Sailing through difficult waters

By Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Rahmat Mohamad

STRAITS TRAFFIC: Littoral states should increase collaboration to facilitate shipping and ensure safety of vessels, write Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Rahmat Mohamad

LOCATED in the middle of Asia’s maritime crossroads, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore have, for centuries, been celebrated as two of the most important sea lines of communication.

At the moment, about 40 per cent of the world’s trade passes via the straits, and even though this maritime route is the most convenient link between Asia and Europe, it has a notorious reputation for being navigationally difficult.

Navigational hazards
On average, the region around the straits experiences high humidity and considerable rainfall, and the wind velocity is relatively light. Given their location in a tropical zone, these areas are subject to torrential rain and squalls almost every day. A system of squalls originating from the Indian Ocean, described as the Sumatras, brings thunderstorms, heavy rain and winds in the pre-dawn and early mornings in the Straits of Malacca region.

The water currents at the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca from where it meets the Andaman Sea are strong. In the south, the Straits of Malacca receives currents from the South China Sea, Johor Strait and Rupat Strait.

The movement of currents in the southern part of the Straits of Malacca is unstable compared to the northern segment of the waterway as the southern end of the straits is narrower and more confined. The currents in this part of the straits form large sand waves, sand banks and shallow shoals along the waterway.

These characteristics can impact adversely on smooth navigation. During squalls, visibility can decrease considerably and these conditions can make it difficult for mariners to navigate their vessels through the straits.

Other navigational hazards are in the form of shipwrecks that may impede navigation, small islands, isles and shoals in the south-eastern exit to the Strait of Singapore as well as the unreliable aids to navigation equipment, especially in the waters off Indonesia.

Haze caused by forest and bush fires in Sumatra has also compromised safe navigation through these waterways and remains a threat to mariners. To date, the haze crisis in 1997 was the worst to hit Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore; to the extent that the Port Klang Authority considered closing night shipping in South Port as visibility fell below 0.5 nautical miles.

In July 2009, the haze blanketed the airspace of the Riau province of Sumatra, affecting shipping near the Port of Dumai, where visibility was down to less than 0.2 nautical miles. In 2010, hazy conditions reduced visibility to less than two nautical miles, forcing Malaysia to issue a hazard warning to ships sailing in the Straits of Malacca. With low visibility, the risks of maritime collision increase. Fortunately for the littoral states, maritime accidents have yet to take place in the straits due to poor visibility caused by hazy conditions.

Cross-strait traffic
The issue of cross traffic or coastal traffic shipping in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore has been controversial. Most cross-traffic ships are vessels less than 300 Gross Register Tonnage (GRT), hence it is not compulsory for these ships to follow the safety navigation rules enforced in these waterways.

Cross-traffic in the Straits of Malacca includes barter trade vessels, fishing boats and passenger ferries. A tightly-knit network of trade relations, both formal and informal, spans the waterway.

Most of these cross-traffic vessels call at the Malaysian ports of Port Dickson, Malacca, Muar and Kukup, all located at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca. These ports have connections with various Indonesian ports on the opposite shore, including Pelabuhan Belawan, Tanjung Balai, Dumai, Bengkalis, Karimun, Batam and Tanjung Pinang.

To date, there have never been any rules established in regulating cross-strait traffic, which, as stated earlier, is exempted from the Straits of Malacca and Singapore’s mandatory ship reporting system, the STRAITREP rule.

To avoid future accidents, the three littoral states of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia could devise solutions to this problem by designating proper lanes for cross-strait traffic in these busy waterways.

Even though there has never been a major maritime disaster involving a collision between cross-strait traffic and transiting traffic, cross-strait traffic is a hazard that must be considered in improving safety for the navigation of vessels transiting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

Due to the busy nature of the straits and ships carrying a variety of valuable commodities, some valued up to US$136 billion (RM445 billion) annually, and the presence of shallow reefs and innumerable small islands that compel ships to transit at greatly reduced speed, pirate attacks on merchant ships along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore have been common.

If a fully laden oil tanker were to be sunk in these circumstances, the resultant environmental consequences to the coastal communities and the fishing industries would be devastating.

Passage of ships through the straits would also be interrupted if there was a closure of the straits as a result of an incident of this type.

Due to increased security surveillance and joint patrol organised by the littoral states, piracy/sea robbery activities have significantly dropped. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the straits are free from pirate attacks. These criminal activities should be supressed as they pose tremendous hazards to mariners navigating the straits.

Way forward
The Straits of Malacca and Singapore possess a number of navigational hazards, both natural and man-made, that may cause difficulties to mariners.

Consequently, the most effective remedy is for the littoral states of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to continuously work collaboratively to facilitate shipping and to ensure the safety of transiting vessels is guaranteed and the marine environment of the straits is protected from accidental pollution.

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. Rahmat Mohamad is a professor of international law at Universiti Teknologi Mara. Both are associate fellows at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu


Original Article