Mauritius Oil Spill: Both Nature and Lives Ruined
by Hülya AFAT
The Republic of Mauritius is an island nation in the Indian Ocean and has been independent for five decades after three centuries of being colonized by multiple nations. Island’s economy depends on 74% on the service sector (mostly tourism), which has already been negatively affected by the COVID lockdown for the last six months. On July 25, 2020, a Japanese-owned ship MV Wakashio ran aground offshore, and according to the statement made by officials of Mauritius, “ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.”(1) The ship started spilling oil on August 6, 2020, and dangering the coral reefs and the protected marine life of Mauritius. We can observe one mistake endangering a massive population of marine life and the health and the economic status of people living on the island.
The ship was supposed to stay at least 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Mauritius but instead came within a mile and struck the coral reef.(2) The captain is believed to have been celebrating a birthday of a crew member on board and failed to respond to attempts by the coastguard to contact the vessel. The company has declined to comment on those allegations.(3) This irresponsible behavior did not go unpunished, and the captain was arrested by the Mauritian authorities. Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, captain of the ship, was charged with “endangering safe navigation” and is in custody pending a bail hearing this week, confirmed by the Mauritian police. (4)
Environmental groups immediately responded to the accident by trying to reserve the spilled oil from reaching the coast. After the 1,000 tons of fuel had been leaked from the ship in 2 days, the remaining 3,000 tons of fuel had been pumped off the ship before the rest was leaked, and the damage done to the coral reefs was irreversible.(5) In order to fix the damage done by the incident, “We have planted about 200,000 indigenous trees to restore the coastal forest,” Jean Hugue Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation told The Associated Press. “We re-introduced endangered birds, including the pink pigeon, the olive white-eye, and the critically endangered Mauritius fody to the Isle aux Aigrettes. Now all this is threatened as the oil is seeping into the soil and the coral reefs,” he said.(6) The restoration is still in progress, but most of the damage seems to be permanent.
Even though the attraction the disaster get from the international news was inadequate, the financial and guide response to the disaster was not disappointing. “UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN Development Program has allocated $200,000 to address the immediate impact of the spill.”(6) UN agencies are also supporting the public health response, assessing the risks to communities, providing forensic investigation and legal support, and using UN satellite imagery and analysis to help with remote mapping. Japan has sent two teams of experts to help the clean-up. Also, France has sent a team of experts and equipment to help.(8) Mauritius is still seeking compensation from the Nagashiki Shipping.
On the most recent news, the salvage crews of Mauritius are preparing to sink both parts of the ship and this response has received backlash from environmental groups. Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager, said the Mauritian government had chosen the worst option. “Sinking this vessel would risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Réunion. Mauritians had nothing to gain from the MV Wakashio crossing their waters and are now asked to pay the price of this disaster. More pollution further risks their tourist-based economy and fish-based food security,” Khambule said.(9) The negative aftermath of the damage done to both Mauritius’ economy and the marine life is expected to continue for decades, unfortunately. This disaster and the hardship that people of Mauritius are facing raised the question “Is the international ship transportation regulated enough?”, which we can definitely answer as “No, there needs to be more work done!”. With more strict codes and guidelines for the shipping companies, and more supportive law enforcement on the side of the victim of the disaster, the number of possible disasters like this can be minimized.