Ever since the oil spill caused by the MV Wakashio shipwreck we have been so bombarded with a surfeit of information that the time has come to step back and review the situation more coolly. The emotional high among the volunteers that was manifested in the cleaning up that followed was also reflected among the several disparate interest groups that marched in the streets of Port Louis on August 29th. However, while the authorities must definitely not discount the magnitude of the numerical and gut reactions, they must address the issues ventilated with objectivity and rigour in a systematic and scientific way. This can only be done by sticking to the relevant facts and discarding those of no material interest to the case.
A few basic points about the incident are important to underline. The ship ran aground on the reef near Ile aux Aigrettes, and the oil spill took place in the lagoon’s inlet – wherefrom a current flows towards an outlet (with the oil remaining at the inlet site), which in the present case leads away towards Riviere des Creoles and Bois des Amourettes. Compared to shipwrecks elsewhere (e.g. the one that took place shortly after near Sri Lanka), the amount of oil spilt was quite small, although pictures taken up close would show graphically dramatic shots that would impact viewers greatly.
Logically, one must look at the immediate, mid-term and long-term effects on the reef, the sea water, the beach, the sea creatures, the mangroves, and those whose livelihoods revolve around the sea. One must also underline that nature has a tremendous capacity to repair itself, and that over time new equilibria are achieved at altered levels of sustainability.
While there has probably been physical damage to the reef caused by the ship’s hull, any biological damage will only become apparent in the mid-term at least, adding to any whitening of the reef that may have already been under way there. Stretching from Pointe d’Esny up to Bambous Virieux, the sea water is clear, and small fish have already been spotted swimming in these waters. And there is no smell of oil at all anywhere in that area. The beach is also cleared of oil. As for mangroves, their very function is to act as biodigesters, and the residual oil over them will be subjected to that biodigestion. Real damage to mangroves occurs when they are physically destroyed, which is not what happened in the present case.
When it comes to the people who have a locus standi in the area in terms of their livelihood, government has already arranged to assist fishermen to the tune of Rs10,200 per month in addition to their bad weather allowance to a total of Rs 17500. There is also damage caused to their boats, nets and other equipment and paraphernalia, and this will apply to the plaisanciers too, and next are the vendors and hawkers, resto owners. A complete audit factoring in all these aspects has to be undertaken, along with an estimation of the timeline for continuing the additional assistance being given, which will obviously depend on when activities can reasonably be resumed, and not forgetting to take into consideration the Covid-19 element in so doing. Besides, there will have to be regular monitoring of the situation on site and an updating of a compiled list of all persons/families recorded therein. In the meantime the legal procedures to obtain compensation from the shipping company will go on, and the modus operandi of settling any claims worked out and implemented in due course, taking into account what has been granted previously.
This is the logical way to proceed for the authorities, whose responsibility when handling taxpayer money is to ensure that disbursements and allocations are made equitably because there are other equally vulnerable and deserving categories of citizens whose problems must also be heard and attended to. It has been announced this week that the Government will disburse Rs 10 billion, made available to it by the Bank of Mauritius as a refundable loan, as compensation to parties affected by the oil spill. How the quantum of that compensation has been arrived at is not known at this stage. Nor have any details been made public as regards the criteria that will be applied for the identification of genuine victims of oil pollution, the determination of the quantum of compensation for financial/commercial losses.
Compensation for clean-up costs and damages caused by oil spills from tankers is governed by two international conventions – the Civil Liability Convention and the International Convention of the Establishment of an International fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage. As regards those whose livelihoods have been directly affected by the oil spill, emergency assistance is already being provided, and rightly so. However the decision of the Government to disburse compensation (the actual costs of which, not speculative ones can only be determined by making a thorough assessment of damage caused as well as the identification of the direct and indirect victims) and well before negotiations have been conducted and agreement reached with the ship company’s insurers is indicative of a government which has been cowed down by noises from the streets. Its mis-governance of the country on numerous counts since the beginning of its mandate as well as the trail of suspicions around the circumstances of the shipwreck and the subsequent oil spill have only made it vulnerable to all manner of lobbies – in the present case from those with an eye on the billions of compensation money. As it has always been the case, those who come forward and shout loudly extract their pound of the flesh.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from this whole episode by other categories of stakeholders in similar economic difficulties, it is that they must be equally vocal in demanding from government what is rightfully their due. An example is the sugarcane planters who produce up to 60 tonnes of sugar per season, and who used to receive an assistance of Rs35,000 per acre for bulldozing, clearing, planting, etc., coming from an EU fund which apparently is empty. They will apparently not be receiving this sum in the current year and uncertainty hangs as to when it will be restored. The question is with the billions of rupees made available to other sectors, why could the shortfall from the EU fund not be made good with allocation from that BOM package? Likewise vegetable growers too must be robustly supported by the authorities, as they suffered much loss during the confinement and their woes are still not over.
It can thus be realized that, while the media blitzkrieg around the Wakashio incident has polarized attention to the oil spill, whose impacts are already being addressed, now that the urgency is over the authorities must give their attention to the other issues and stakeholders that are equally deserving of official attention, and of an equitable share of the country’s financial resources.
* Published in print edition on 11 September 2020