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Oil spill in Mauritius affects ecosystem and economy

28th Aug 2020
Oil spill in Mauritius affects ecosystem and economy

International Maritime Organization helping to mitigate the impacts of MV Wakashio oil spill in Mauritius (Credit:IMO/Flickr Commons)

Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, has fallen victim to an oil spill by a Japanese cargo ship, MV Wakashio, which was en route from China to Brazil.

The ship ran aground along a pristine coral reef on July 25 and began cracking and spilling oil on August 6. The ship, which has spilt 1,000 metric tonnes of oil, is expected to break in half any day.

On August 12, Mauritius’ Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, announced that almost all the oil remaining on the ship, between 2-3,000 tonnes had been pumped out using helicopters, which transferred the oil to smaller tankers nearby.

France has sent a military plane and naval boat with clean-up crews and supplies from their nearby island of Réunion to help with disaster relief. Japan also sent a 6-person crew to assist in the clean-up.

Mauritius’ Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and told residents to leave the clean-up to professionals. Many locals were unhappy with the Government’s response to the incident and defied those orders.

They made homemade oil boons using sugar cane leaves, human hair donated by residents and plastic bottles to help with absorption to keep the oil from reaching the island. Environmental activists have accused the Government of Mauritius of gross negligence regarding what many see as their untimely response to the incident.

The company that chartered the ship, Mitsui OSK, issued an apology to Mauritius, “for causing a great deal of inconvenience.” According to Reuters, the company does not think that the oil spill will greatly affect earnings and “does not expect an earnings impact from the incident to be big enough to warrant timely disclosure.” Bloomberg reported that the insurance would likely cover most of the damages.

Coronavirus travel restrictions had already decimated the local economy of Mauritius, which relies heavily on tourism. As an island, the sea gives many residents their livelihoods, through fishing and boat tours. Reuben Pillay, a tour guide interviewed by the BBC, said, “For the local people, it’s been terrible.

These people, they are fisherman, they are boat operators, they are divers, they live from the sea and they eat from the sea, so tourism will be affected for a long period and they won’t be able to do any of that. The Government has had to close a school because of the smell. It’s terrible. It’s detrimental to the health of the people there.”

The island is well known for its biodiversity. One coral atoll at the centre of the disaster, Ile aux Aigrettes, was to be the central focus of a Protected Area Network for the conservation of some of Mauritius’ endemic species. Though many of the species have been moved, it is unclear whether clean-up efforts will be successful enough to fully restore the biodiverse ecosystem.

Mauritius petitioned the United Nations for help with the clean-up, and they answered the call, deploying experts. Two areas that were affected by the ship are protected under the Ramsar Convention, a wetlands protection treaty, which Mauritius ratified in 2001.

Forbes published an article explaining that two recent disasters, the Mauritius oil spill and the Beirut explosion, could have been avoided with better shipping regulations. Panama has the most international vessel registrants, which may speak to its laxer safety standards regarding ship inspections.

The Forbes article stated that “In the case of Mauritius, despite a Japanese firm, Nagashiki Shipping Company, owning the vessel, the Japanese Government has not publicly offered support for the clean-up of the vessel as the vessel is Panama registered.”

Mauritius’ pristine ecosystems that host a wide variety of endemic species may have to rely on its UN connections for help in the clean-up, rather than on any one nation. The small island nation itself is ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of such scale on its own.

While the number of major oil spills has decreased over the decades, each one causes major environmental and economic harm in a short period. If the victims are not high profile, for example, the residents of a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, they tend to get less media coverage, though Greta Thunberg did promote a crowdfunding page to help with the clean-up on her Twitter account. While some nations, as well as the UN, have stepped up to help mitigate the disaster, a full ecosystem and economic recovery seems unlikely any time in the near future.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall,
Grit Daily Staff Writer, The Muslim NewsEnvironmental Columnist.

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