Blue Economy versus Exclusive Economic Zone

As the world battles the Coronavirus pandemic, the MV Wakashio, a Japanese-flagged ship has caused another major disaster in Mauritius, the effects of which will live with the island nation for decades to come.

By Roland Ngam, with Subron Ashok,
Director of CARES Mauritius.
Photo: The MV Wakashio aground near Blue Bay Marine Park (via Twitter).

 

The MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius’ Blue Bay Marine Park and l’îIe aux Aigrettes in late July 2020. Following the accident, authorities failed to take immediate steps to remove the ship or the over 5000 metric tonnes of oil it was carrying, which just postponed a potential ecological disaster.

In early August, severe storms battered the ship and it started to break apart. Late on Thursday August 6th 2020, the whole world watched as the ship’s side was slashed open and about 1000 metric tonnes of oil spilled into the pristine turquoise waters of the Indian ocean. Soon, the spill had spread for miles around the ship, causing an ecological disaster.

 

NGOs and environmental
activists to the rescue.

Although news of the oil spill made its way around the island almost immediately, there was no action on the part of the Mauritian government to organise a quick containment and clean-up effort. In the face of complete government inaction, local environmental activists and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) took it upon themselves to clean up the oil that was slowly turning the island’s waters black.

The initial clean-up effort was managed almost exclusively by ordinary citizens and community organisations. CARES Mauritius and partner NGOs sent out word early on Friday August 7th 2020 for activists to gather and do something about the oil spill.

Mauritius does not have enough sea booms (used to contain oil floating on the surface of water after an oil spill) to deal with major disasters and so the first thing that activists had to do was come up with a solution that could help vacuum as much oil from the ocean surface as possible. The solution they turned to was dry sugarcane leaves and straw, which the island has in abundance as well as human hair.

CARES Mauritius and partner NGOs sent out word early on Friday August 7th 2020 for activists to gather and do something about the oil spill. About one thousand activists answered the call and set to work stuffing sugarcane leaves, straw and human hair into net bags, which were then linked together to form long booms. Plastic bottles were attached underneath the bags so that they would float on the ocean surface before the booms were then deployed in a perimeter around the site of oil spill. Activists also gathered along the shoreline and vacuumed oil sludge around mangrove wetlands and sandy beaches.

CARES director Subron Ashok explained to EURONEWS that “People have realised that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora.”

The Mauritian media covered the NGOs’ efforts extensively and by the 8th of August, everybody wanted to help. Over 50,000 people descended on shopping malls, parking lots and open spaces next to the ocean to help prepare oil booms. Ordinary citizens formed teams to collect straw from farms and barbershops offered free haircuts to collect hair.

Aerial shots show that the sugarcane leaf boom innovation prevented most of the oil from fanning too far outwards into the ocean and downwards onto the coral reefs in the areas where they were installed. By Monday August 10th, about 500 metric tonnes of oil, including ninety tonnes of oil sludge had been removed from the ocean surface, i.e. just over half the oil that leaked off the MV Wakashio. Many more boom perimeters need to be installed to stop the oil from spreading farther.

Parallel to this initiative, some activists marched to denounce government inaction.

When the government saw the scope and scale of the spontaneous national effort, they had tacitly ceded the clean-up effort to the volunteers and NGOs. It was only after days or ordinary citizens, environmental activists and NGOs leading the clean-up work that the top leadership of the government appeared on the scene of the accident with the media in tow, which caused even more anger among the population.

Speaking to l’Express Mauritus, activist Stéphane Gua called for more government effort and transparency:

“We have to, in all good faith, continue the clean-up effort and inform the public about what we are doing. The worst is not behind us. The hole in the ship’s side could get bigger and release more oil onto the ocean and we need to do everything to stop this from happening. We demand that all the oil left in the ship be pumped out before it pollutes our coastal waters. We also call on the authorities, including the Prime Minister, to be more transparent and work with NGOs and activists to map the spread of the oil, because that is the only way we can determine how much damage has been done.”

Former Environment Minister Rajesh Bhagwan blasted the Mauritian government for trying to ‘hijack’ the people’s work:

“The spontaneous solidarity of the Mauritian people is understandable in the face of complete government inaction. The government is now trying to hijack this operation for partisan purposes… It is only fair that Ministers Ramano and Maudhoo resign, under the circumstances”.

 

Why was the MV Wakashio
so close to the shore?

Tempers are at boiling point in Mauritius. The MV Wakashio should have stopped about 20 to 30 miles from the shore when it stopped over in Mauritius. However, at the time of the accident, it was only 10 miles from the coastline. It is still unclear why it was so close to the shore and who authorised it to be that close. After preliminary investigations, Mauritian authorities are saying that the ship came close to the shore to get Wi-Fi connection. Crew members were also celebrating a birthday on board the ship and did not notice how close they were to the coast.

The vessel had also been allowed to stray into the Mauritius Exclusive Economic Zone. The Exclusive Economic Zone has as one of its ambitions to become a major sea traffic intersection in the Indian Ocean. This would mean double or triple the current traffic that it currently receives. Environmentalists say that the Mauritius Exclusive Economic Zone project is incompatible with efforts that are needed to promote the blue economy.

Although the Mauritian government has taken decisions recently to promote sustainable tourism activities, the oil spill showed that protecting blue economies is not compatible with the priorities of the Exclusive Economic Zone. Environmentalists are adamant that the government has to choose, and for them, the Mauritius Exclusive Economic Zone project must be stopped.

International clean-up effort

In a move that has angered Mauritians, environment Minister Kavydass Ramano has declared the entire accident site, including the polluted beaches a “forbidden zone” and ordered citizens to stay away. Over 120 experts from around the world have converged on the island to help deal with the wreckage and unfolding ecological disaster, and the environment minister believes that it must be a government-led process from this point onwards. A National Crisis Management Committee has been set up to coordinate clean-up and salvage efforts.
The environment minister informed parliament in early August that:

  • The ship was heading for Brazil before the accident.
  • It was carrying 3,894 tonnes of low-sulphur fuel oil, 207 tonnes of diesel and 90 tonnes of lube oil.
  • Traces of hydrocarbons have been reported in algae over a stretch of about 300 meters.
  • Two local companies, Smit Salvage and CELERO, have been contracted to pull the ship to a safer area. Tug boats have also been called in from South Africa and Singapore.

On August 15th, while the salvage team was continuing to pump oil out of the ship’s three tanks, rough seas caused it to split in two, which led to more oil being dumped onto the ocean. Part of the ship dropped about 2000 metres to the bottom of the ocean, damaging more coral reefs in its path. Discussions are ongoing about what to do with the bigger section which has stayed afloat, with some suggesting that it should be towed to a salvage yard in Gujarat, India.

The Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, has asked the ship’s owners to pay reparations for the damage. It is unclear how long the MV Wakashio’s owners will take to respond to this call – and ordinary Mauritians are not paying much attention to their Prime Minister anyway. His favourability ratings, which took a hit after the oil spill have plummeted further after he was embroiled in a 7000-acre land scandal.

While the government effort continues on one side, community organisations have continued to build makeshift booms and vacuum oil off the sandy beaches. They argue that the island is not the property of the government and that it is not up to the government to tell them when and where they can or cannot help. Activists had been saying for days that the government would not be able to manage the crisis on its own, and they were proved right when the MV Wakashio split in two. Thousands of volunteers will have to work nonstop over the next few weeks to salvage just fifty percent of the accident site.

Local activists are also livid that the government let an avoidable situation balloon into a crisis and now they want to score cheap political points.

Long-term Economic and ecological disaster.

Mauritius, which had already taken a massive hit with all the Coronavirus-related restrictions and disruption of international travel, will face further headwinds for years, if not, decades. Predictions already indicate that the island will lose at least $20 billion over the next decade due to the MV Wakashio accident alone.

Mauritius generates almost $2 billion annually from fishing, tourism and renting out of marine locations to Bollywood and these revenue sources will remain shut for the foreseeable future. Tourism, which had ground to a standstill within the coronavirus pandemic, is off the agenda for now.

Local villages that depend on the ocean for their food and sustenance are scrambling to secure alternative means of survival. For now, the government has not announced any plans to help them, even on a short-term basis.
The oil on the ocean floor has already reached the Blue Bay Marine Park and l’Ile aux Aigrettes. The coral reefs of the Pointe-d’Esny, where the ship ran aground, are covered in layers of oil sludge. The rehabilitation of coral reefs around the Blue Bay Marine Park which had taken years to recover from previous weather and anthropogenic events has been further pushed back by decades. Environmentalists predict that it will take up to four decades for the environment to recover.

Also in long-term danger are the mangrove forests, giant tortoises, different varieties of fish and the pink pigeon. Local community members have been cleaning up birds covered in oil sludge for the past three weeks and it will take months to calculate the exact death toll of protected species.

Mauritians are now calling on the government to scrap the Exclusive Economic Zone initiative and work with local communities to protect the environment which offers the island nation more long-term possibilities than anything that could be gained from being a global transit hub.

Conclusion

The MV Wakashio disaster has led to an outpouring of solidarity and innovation, the likes of which Mauritius has never witnessed before. While the government dithered, it fell on community activists to save their island. By the 18th of August 2020, over 100,000 Mauritians had come out at least once to help stuff sugarcane leaves into bags with which to set up oil booms. These booms have been very effective in halting the flow of oil to beaches and protected wetlands. Unfortunately, the radius of the oil spill is so wide that it will take the island nation’s entire 1.3 million people to mount an effective clean-up campaign. With damaged wetlands and endangered coral reefs ruined by layers of oil sludge, Mauritians have also lost their main source of food and income. The Mauritian government now needs to shift all its energy from the Exclusive Economic Zone project to working with the people to save its most important asset, the country’s environment. Without a clean environment, the Mauritian economy would struggle to stay afloat.

 

Mauritians gather sugarcane leaves to prepare oil booms: Source: L’Express Maurice.

 

A man sets up an oil boom made from straw. Source: L’Express Maurice.

 

CARES Mauritius’ Stephane Gua talks to the press and calls on more transparency from the Mauritian government. Source: L’Express Maurice.

 

Mauritians are fighting to save their coastline from the spill. Source: L’Express Maurice.

 

This article was updated on 19/08/2020 to reflect updated information.
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