‘Catastrophic’ explosion looms over Diego Garcia

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Map showing the location of anchorages in the Diego Garcia lagoon, obtained from one of the FOI documents. Source: New Internationalist.

Map showing the location of anchorages in the Diego Garcia lagoon, obtained from one of the FOI documents. Source: New Internationalist.

The New Internationalist on Monday published confidential US navy documents released under a freedom of information (FOI) request revealing the risk of a “catastrophic” explosion at Diego Garcia due to the proximity of anchored warships.

US Navy memorandum mentioning the ‘catastrophic impact’ of an explosion on Diego Garcia. Source: New Internationalist.

One of the documents reads: “The risks of anchoring ships closely together are moderate, the consequences of an explosion are catastrophic, but maintaining the war-fighting capability at Diego Garcia is paramount since no other alternative is available.” The lives of 4,000 US military troops stationed on the island, part of the disputed Chagos archipelago, are thus at risk. The mooring capacity of the Diego Garcia lagoon is believed to be up to 20 warships at any one time. The documents disclose that owing to the small size of the anchorage, warships are positioned closer together than what normal US department of defence safety guidelines recommend.

US Navy memo regarding the exemption request which reads: “All island personnel work in support of the island’s mission.” Source: New Internationalist.

In 2000, the US Navy requested safety distance exemptions for its warships moored at Diego Garcia. One of the requirements for these exemptions is that personnel unrelated to the military missions at Diego Garcia ought to be kept away from a potential blast. This could partially account for the failure of the campaign led by uprooted Chagossians to resettle to their islands.

US Navy memo remarking that “the net explosive risk at Diego Garcia is unavoidable”. Source: New Internationalist.

The risk of explosion also jeopardises the marine protected area (MPA), declared unilaterally by the UK around the Chagos archipelago in 2010 and which a tribunal appointed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in 2015 as “incompatible” with the UK obligations under the said convention. Although Diego Garcia was conveniently left out of the MPA, an explosion of the US navy fleet would annihilate the flora and fauna of other sites protected under the RAMSAR Convention, claims the New Internationalist. This scenario “raises questions over the authenticity of the UK government’s conservation concerns for the Chagos”,  journalist Katie McQue states, taking into consideration that the UK government is believed to be regularly briefed on the explosive risk on Diego Garcia. A 2008 report released through another FOI request revealed that the mooring of warships in the lagoon was further damaging the island’s corals. “One third of the lagoon’s area of richest coral, is anchored on at various times and intervals,” reports the New Internationalist.

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