Why the Mauritius oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen
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When a bulk carrier ran aground on a coral reef in Mauritius in June 2016, oceanographer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo warned authorities to be better prepared for a bigger maritime disaster.
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,” explained Kauppaymuthoo, an environmental engineer.
“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."
That ecological disaster unfolded last week when tons of oil started gushing from cracks in the grounded Japanese-owned MV Wakashio, a Panama-flagged bulk carrier, into environmentally-sensitive lagoons, coral reefs and mangrove forests, on the island’s south-east coast.
The vessel was carrying over 4 000 tons of heavy oil, lubricants and diesel. While most of the oil has now been pumped off the vessel, around 820 tons spilled into the ocean, threatening the region’s fragile marine ecosystem.
"When you look at marine traffic, you can see even today, some 200 000 ton oil tankers passing near Mauritius," he says. "We talk of 820 tons in the lagoon, just imagine a 200 000 ton or even a 500 000 ton oil tanker grounded in Mauritius. So we should learn from our errors. When you make an error one time, you should take the lesson and prevent the problem from happening again...
“Fortunately they were able to pump the oil with the MV Benita. It was a small spill, a few tons. Now we’re talking 820 tons. We were not equipped.”
The MV Wakashio was on its way to Brazil when it hit the coral reef about 2km off Pointe d’Esny on July 25 in the vicinity of two important Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance sites: Blue Bay Marine Park and Pointe d’Esny wetlands as well as nature reserves such as Ile aux Aigrettes and islets national park.
“The spill has badly impacted the pristine lagoons, coral reefs, mangrove forests and biodiversity with ... shorelines covered with black sludge, in what's turning out to be an environmental disaster and emergency,” says the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF).
“It’s a major catastrophe”, says Kauppaymuthoo, warning the impacts of will last for decades on an island heavily reliant on fishing and tourism, and hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“You feel anger and sadness. The time it took between the grounding and the first operations was nearly 13 days. How did the ship come in such an area without being detected or stopped? They could have pulled it out right from the start ... the oil could have been pumped out from the start.
“But they didn’t do anything. They waited for the first traces of oil on August 6 and when they started to see images of dark patches on the sea, they tried to take action against ‘fake news’ to prevent people posting images. When the oil really spilled on August 7, only then did they start to ask for help.
“The French came on August 8 and started to deploy on August 9. If they asked for help from the start, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s a sequence of events and we were always one step behind. The damage is irreversible.”
Another Mauritian resident, who prefers anonymity, agrees. “The people are very angry with the authorities as we asked for action since day one and were told everything is under control. We feel cheated.”
Thousands of volunteers have helped fashion oil booms from stretch nets, sugar cane straw, human hair and plastic bottles to channel oil. "These efforts are paying off, as the booms hold up the oil and facilitate the pumping," says the MWF.
These small steps matter, says Kauppaymuthoo. "These are not professional booms, but they are still there. We didn't have all the equipment just to surround the ship. We only had 420m of oil booms. The ship was 300m long and 50m wide. So it means we were not equipped for this type of oil spill and were always one step behind unfortunately."
The Mauritian people are "doing what they can in the face of what is a really devastating tragedy,” says Dr Alex Lenferna, a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org, whose parents hail from Mauritius.
"There’s real frustration that the ship just sat there for days and nobody did anything until it was too late, until the ship was being torn apart and oil was spilling out ... The difficult thing is that the spill has harmed an ecosystem already under significant strain from climate change and coral bleaching,” says Lenferna.
Mauritian authorities say the 150 cubic metres of hydraulic and lubricating fluid remaining on board was due to be removed by Friday, with 22 international experts, mainly from France, Japan and the UN assisting local teams.
The risk of an additional spill is reduced but present, says the MWF. “There are still some hazardous products remaining and a change in weather conditions could break the ship apart and scatter some remaining oil across the bay.”
Authorities have been deploying additional booms as France sent equipment and technical expertise from neighbouring Reunion Island. "Japan also flew across a team of six experts. More assistance has or is arriving from the UN, India, South Africa and Russia."
Kauppaymuthoo says it's reassuring that nearly all the bunker oil has been removed.
"But a ship like this also contains some toxic metals, like batteries, that have to be removed very quickly. There are some parts of the ship like the flooring that can contain some toxic elements. So it has to be depolluted very quickly before it breaks.
"The work has started but it's not yet done and it's very dangerous because the teams working on a ship that can break at any time. They can lose their lives. We're still not there, let's put it like this. There may be a small spill when the ship will break because of these remaining oil and products in the ship, but also the toxicity of certain elements.
"If the ship breaks, they will try to tow it away, but it may sink just over there, and then you'll get a permanent pollution seeping in the ocean and getting in the lagoon. So we're not there. We're not threatened anymore by a big spill, but we're stil threatened by those elements."
If there’s any “light in the darkness”, it's the huge outpouring of Mauritian solidarity,” says 19-year-old clean-up volunteer Tatiana Courtillon.
“When the oil spill began many people realised that we had to act as fast as possible ... For the beaches that are already affected volunteers and NGOs are removing the oil with shovels and old fabrics and putting them in plastic barrels or bottles, indeed anything that can contain the oil.
"The sad, dangerous part is that not everyone is equipped and the air is very toxic ... The impacts are terrible: dead fishes, black beaches and mangroves. We are far from the postcard images," she says.
She is frustrated, angry and sad. "But as many young Mauritians now I am reflecting about the incapacity of the government. The population and especially the youth are really getting fed up with all this and that’s why people didn’t wait for the government to take measures."
The MWF says it is not risking volunteers for any clean-up exercises for the time being "as we remain careful on the toxicity of the products and the risks on the health of persons exposed to it without proper protective equipment.
"We have had to fully equip our frontline staff," says its spokesperson Jean Hugues Gardenne. "Many people have been wading into the oil spilled waters with only thongs and wearing shorts and it is extremely dangerous. A couple of hours exposed to fumes can cause headaches, nose and eye burns and even dizziness. "
There are concerns for human health, says Kauppaymuthoo.
“Some people have already started to complain of headaches and vomiting from the toxic fumes ... There are a lot of fishermen who use this area and some people may try to sell seafood, which is contaminated. This will have to be watched very closely."
The island needs to prepare for the long term effects. "Health follow ups should immediately be put in place for all populations living on the affected coast knowing the carcinogenic power of fuel oil."
Ile aux Aigrettes, says the MWF, is home to sub-populations of Pink Pigeons, Mauritius Olive White-eyes, Mauritius Fodies, Telfair’s Skinks, Guenther’s Geckos and dozens of endemic plants, most of which are IUCN red-listed.
Within days the oil patch moved further north and reached the four islets overlooking the Mahebourg bay, Ile de la Passe, Ilot Vacoas, Ile au Phare and Ile Marianne - key habitats for endemic reptiles such as Bouton and Bojer skinks, extinct on mainland Mauritius.
Its conservation director, Dr Vikash Tatayah, says: ‘We had a three-step plan as we anticipated an oil spill, but had to jump directly to step three. Precautionary measures to protect threatened unique flora and fauna of Ile aux Aigrettes have now been completed.
"Twelve Mauritius Olive White-eyes and six Mauritius Fodies were captured and transferred to the Black River Aviary facilities with the agreement of the National Parks and Conservation Service, to be kept until the conditions on Ile aux Aigrettes improve and we can then return them back. Similarly 4 000 endemic plants from the plant nursery – some being very rare plants - have been transferred to mainland and are being kept at Forestry Services Mahebourg premises and Ferney Valley if needed. Staff on the Kestrel, our ecotour boat, have been relentlessly supporting the oil pumping effort."
The conservation work it has carried out on Ile aux Aigrettes for nearly 40 years "is at stake", it warns.
The MWF is looking at the impact on seabirds’ communities and carrying out surveys in other areas. "Fortunately, so far there haven’t been any records of seabirds affected, with only one waterbird reported dead to date.
"Populations of Lesser Night Geckos, Bouton’s skinks and Bojer’s skinks are being collected from the South East islets to be kept in a biosecure place on the mainland. These reptiles have gone extinct on mainland Mauritius."