The MV Wakashio left China on 14 July, heading for Brazil. The vessel, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd, hit a coral reef, Pointe d’Esny, Mauritius on 25 July, 2020.
What is significant about this incident is that the vessel was carrying 4,000 tonnes of heavy oil, lubricants and diesel, a large amount of which was pumped out but a significant amount still entered into the Indian Ocean.
No oil leakage was reported at the time, and the Mauritius coast guard swiftly deployed booms and took other preventive actions. The government activated its National Oil Spill Contingency Plan the following day.
By 5th August, a minor oil slick was observed surrounding the vessel. It was still assumed that the country’s contingency plan was sufficient and that ‘the risk of oil spill was still low‘.
Only after this did things get out of hand – the vessel began flooding and sinking. It then split into two and spilled at least 1,000 tons of oil into the Indian Ocean.
On 7 August Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a national environment emergency. Fisheries Minister Sudheer Maudhoo stated that “this is the first time that we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem.”
Mauritius called for international help once the scale of the emergency became apparent and quickly overwhelmed the resources and capacity of the country’s national contingency plan.
The Mauritius oil spill has been in the news repeatedly and rightly so, for various reasons – the biggest being that it has endangered world-renowned coral reefs and lagoons. The island nation of about 1.3 million people is still grappling with how to protect its world-renowned coral reefs and crystal-clear lagoons after the spill.
The BBC reported that rather than the size of the oil spill, it was the area where it happened, which was a cause for concern. The accident took place near two environmentally protected marine ecosystems and the Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve, which is a wetland of international importance.
Oil spills affect marine life by exposing them to harsh elements and destroying their sources of food and habitat. Further, both birds and mammals can die from hypothermia as a result of oil spills, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
For instance, oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters. It also decreases the water repellency of birds’ feathers, without which they lose their ability to repel cold water.
Since the 1990s, Mauritius has received substantial capacity-building assistance to prevent an oil spill. The country was a core beneficiary in two multi-million-dollar World Bank projects – the $4-million Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Plan from 1998 and 2003 and the $24-million Western Indian Ocean Marine Highway Development and Coastal and Marine Contamination Prevention Project from 2007-2012.
In June 2016 on the back of a bulk carrier running aground in Mauritius, oceanographer and environmental engineer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo warned authorities to be better prepared for bigger maritime disasters.
No one listened, he says. “The sad thing is that we had a sign four years ago with MV Benita, the ship first grounded at Le Bouchon.
At that time, I raised my voice and said we should prepare for a larger disaster, we should see how the surveillance of our maritime zone has changed in 2016, that it shouldn’t happen again. We should buy oil booms to be prepared, and buy more equipment to be prepared for a larger disaster.”
Officials have yet to reveal why the ship, which was making its way from Singapore to Brazil, had come so close to the island, which is now reeling from ecological disaster. “We arrested the captain and his second-in-command today. They were taken to court on a pro-visionary charge. The investigation continues from tomorrow with the interrogation of other crew members,” said spokesman Inspector Shiva Coothen.
The ship’s captain, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, an Indian national, was arrested alongside the chief officer of the ship, Tilak Ratna Suboda, a Sri Lankan. The two were charged under the piracy and maritime violence act and will reappear in court on August 25.
There are a few ways to clean up oil spills. including skimming, in situ burning and by releasing chemical dispersants. Skimming involves removing oil from the sea surface before it is able to reach the sensitive areas along the coastline. In situ burning means burning a particular patch of oil after it has concentrated in one area. Oil booms are floating barriers, placed around the oil or whatever is leaking the oil.
Equipment called containment booms acts like fences to prevent the oil from further spreading or floating away. Once the oil booms confine the oil, skimmers or oil scoops can be deployed on to boats to remove the contaminants from the surface of water. As the name suggests, for burning in-situ, the oil floating on the surface is ignited to burn it off.
This in-situ burning of oil can effectively remove up to 98% of an oil spill, which is more than most of the other methods. However, the toxic fumes released from the burning can cause significant damage to the environment as well as marine life. Releasing chemical dispersants helps break down oil into smaller droplets, making it easier for microbes to consume, and further break it down into less harmful compounds.
Governments require up-to-date assessments to plan future responses. Better and more collective resources and skills at a regional or continental level are required. Improved accountability mechanisms are also important.
The Japanese owners of the MV Wakashio have offered, under international obligations, to pay compensation for applicable damages caused by the oil spill. Yet in other cases, it might not be as easy to track the owners and determine liability.
The Institute for Security Studies, states, “It is time for African maritime institutions to review their approaches and develop appropriate expertise and response mechanisms. This should ensure fast and effective regional or continental action when the inevitable oil leaks arise.
The results should be reported to key multilateral organisations – ideally to the African Union (AU) – as part of the implementation of 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy.
The AU could, for instance, convene a consultative forum for experience and skills sharing with inputs from all the regional economic communities such as that hosted by the Southern African Development Community in 2018.
Disaster relief is expensive but is nowhere near as controversial as other maritime issues such as creating security frameworks and determining boundaries. It can also foster collaboration anchored in regional AU institutions that draw on indigenous expertise and capacities.”
It is time to implement a Traffic Separation Scheme off Mauritius Island in order to keep the navigation far away from this very sensitive area.