“If the Receiver of Wrecks had taken over the Wakashio the morning after the wreck (26th July),,, there would have been no oil spill”

Interview: Dr Michael Atchia

* ‘The 12-day wait for action was to say the least, gross negligence, wrong decision-taking’

* ‘Another aspect of decision making at top level in a crisis situation is to have experienced ministers heading key ministries’

* ‘We all await the conclusion of that court of enquiry to shed light on the mystery of the people who may have disembarked from the lifeboats left in Blue Bay’

Preparedness is the key, says Dr Michael Atchia in today’s interview, to dealing with crises as and when they occur. “Like we are adequately prepared for Class 4 cyclones,” he says, so must we be when it come to a major oil spill, especially so since Mauritius is equipped with a National Oil Spill Plan since the late 80s, elaborated by UNEP in collaboration with IMO, at the request of the Government of Mauritius, “which should have been implemented and regularly updated” as well as conducting “regular oil-spill drills which would have enabled the country to deal with the Wakashio case easily”.

Michael Atchia is the former chief and programme director with the United Nations Environment Programme. He has been a pioneering specialist in the field of sustainable development and has worked internationally in educational reform, international and regional environmental project management and conflict resolution, environmental education and curriculum development.

Mauritius Times: What are the lessons do you think the country and the authorities should learn from the shipwreck of MV Wakashio on 25 July 2020 off Pointe d’Esny, and the subsequent oil spill 12 days later?

Dr Michael Atchia: Preparedness is the key. Like we are adequately prepared for Class 4 cyclones, but are not, for example, equipped to deal with pandemics, war/terrorist attack, financial crash, tsunami/volcanic eruption, or a major oil spill. But we are a resilient and disciplined nation; the proof is how we took measures which everybody applied, to become a CV-19 free country. A solid achievement indeed.

Can we maintain this as we bathe in success and at all levels relax and take it easy? (another characteristic of Mauritians!). Another aspect of decision making at top level in a crisis situation is to have experienced ministers heading key ministries (unlike Maudhoo, Ramano or Balgobin). I am all for new blood in government, but then considering such an arrangement as Minister Mentor (successfully done in the case of a new young PM, with the experienced SAJ as mentor)? Or again my suggestion some time back of a shadow cabinet with a counterpart from the opposition (had suggested Bhagwan a former Minister of Environment as shadow Minister to Ramano).

Part of preparedness, for crises, (take the lesson of all previous events) is that disaster does not come with prior warning!

Specifically, on oil spills: In 1986, the Government of Mauritius approached the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) with a request for assistance in the development of a national oil spill contingency plan for Mauritius. This National Oil Spill Plan of 1987 was elaborated by UNEP (which I joined in 1986 as Chief of EE), in collaboration with IMO, at the request of the Government of Mauritius. It is a detailed 100-page plan, which should have been implemented and regularly updated. It required conduct of regular oil-spill drills (like you conduct fire drills) which would have enabled the country to deal with the Wakashio case easily.

The plan also included how to:

– determine the legal authority requirements for the implementation of an oil spill contingency plan;
– determine the shoreline sensitivities for all geomorphic coastal segments;
– review the known sensitive biological coastal resources;
– review the socio-economic coastal resources;
– develop an environmental sensitivity atlas for Mauritius at a scale of 1:25,000,

 — indicating priority areas for spill response and preferred cleanup methods;
– determine the available equipment for oil spill cleanup operations;
– recommend mitigation techniques for the preservation of birds and vegetation;

– recommend methods of the disposal of oily wastes;
– conduct a three-day seminar to discuss the implementation of the recommended contingency plan; and
– conduct a spill drill to test the response to a simulated spill.

The mission was undertaken in 1987 in consultation with local officials and national institutions to ensure that proper consideration was given to local and national problems and priorities in drafting the national oil spill contingency plan.

An update of this UN plan and its implementation is obviously recommended.

In short if the Receiver of Wrecks of the Port had taken over the wakashio the morning after the wreck (26th July), and started the pumping of oil in earnest with the ship surrounded by booms, there would have been no oil spill. The 12-day wait for action was to say the least, gross negligence, wrong decision-taking. What if it was an asteroid approaching the earth due to fall in the Indian Ocean? Or a 200,000-capacity oil tanker (like some which regularly pass close to us on the Asia/Africa shipping route) adrift near our coast?

Another aspect of preparedness: What is true for air traffic control was lacking for the naval counterpart: how come a large ship can approach and enter our waters (our territory) without permission, no reply, no change of route, without our knowledge and no immediate action such as a helicopter sent out to the ship?

* There have been lots of rumours and conspiracy theories doing the round since the spillage started, and it is clearly not possible to get to the bottom of what went wrong unless and until an inquiry is conducted into the circumstances that led to the shipwreck. Wouldn’t it serve the interests of the government itself, which has been criticised for its management of this crisis, to come clean and tell the people about what it had been doing since the day the ship ran aground?

100% YES! We all await and need the conclusion of that (crucially independent) court of enquiry which the Government has rightly set up to shed light on the circumstances that led to the shipwreck. Including the mystery hidden in the black box of the ship and the mystery of the people who may have disembarked from the lifeboats left in Blue Bay that 25th July morning: Who were they? How many men? Coming for what purpose: terrorism? Illegal immigration? Covid positive Mauritians, unable to get aboard planes, trying to return? If so, could these become a source of reinfection for our Covid-free island? At this stage, these are only questions.

* We have seen scores of experts and salvage crews flown into the country to assist the authorities with the clean-up operations of the environment and the pumping of the oil out of the tanks of the stranded cargo ship. Why is it that we have to date been unable to reduce our dependence on foreign expertise and to equip our institutions with the local experts necessary for the country’s vital economic sectors?

I am well placed to answer that question: as a previous Director at UNEP I had to deal with requests from member states for assistance in specific environmental fields. So from our extensive data of available experts we would contact, hire and send (when available, the best one often not available at the time) to the situation concerned. No country has expertise in all fields, so the ‘exchange’ is a good practice either done bilaterally or with UN assistance. Take an example: dozens of agencies responded to the situation in Rwanda after the genocide of 1993 and the coordination of action was vital: who does what, who provides what, always in close link with the local authorities which in this case was literally absent.

A major fault in a country requesting help has often been neglect of its own available expertise. A new initiative from our Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) in July 2020 has been to set up a register of such available expertise, often from ex-UN cadres, private sector experience, etc. Already Government uses such expertise in fields such as research, radiation, environment, transport, health, agriculture but clearly insufficiently. Do you know that we have a retired IMO Senior staff in Mauritius whose assistance in this Wakashio case would have been vital? A major neglect also is that of local people and their on-the-ground knowledge of the environment. Take the case of the indigenous people of the Amazon for knowledge of medicinal plants, or the fishermen of Mahebourg for their knowledge of coral reefs and currents.

* Given our overdependence on foreign experts, we really do not have to date the means and capacity to realise our ambitions to develop an education or medical or whatever hubs politicians have been talking about down the years, isn’t it? The knowhow will have to be imported, right?

Science and technology have NO frontiers, even more so in this digital age, even more so in this era of confinement where online conferencing has become current. Never has exchange of expertise, project and ideas been so widespread. Mauritius, together with its scientists, researchers and experts, participates fully in these exchanges. My experience with the Tertiary Education Commission (whose programme committee I have chaired for 5 years, 2015-2020) points to the fact that we are well on the way with the 55 or so Universities or University antennae operating here to build such a hub of expertise in science, medicine, engineering, etc. Now that the Higher Education Commission has replaced the Tertiary Education Commission with a wider mandate, this objective remains fully achievable.

* You have been involved with the education sector for over 50 years and you were chairperson of the Mauritius Research Council at one time. Tell us how did you react to the latest ranking scored by our national university on the African continent?

The 55 or so Universities or University antennae operating here including the public universities (UOM, UTM, OU, MIE, UdM, MGI) are doing well at, of course, different levels of achievement, innovation, quality, teaching and research.

* Our human resources constitute a significant asset for the country. What’s your assessment of the management of this asset presently and in view of challenges ahead?

Our human resources, a superb characteristic of Mauritius, come out so clearly in moments of crisis. Voluntarily, in solidarity. I would much prefer to be here in a crisis than let’s say in Nigeria, Iraq or Panama, to mention but three countries. We could even enter this as a character of Mauritius in our Social studies manuals. Take 4 examples:

  • During the last two years of the Second World War (1944-45), when provision of basic food was missing (rice, flour, etc.), there was a tremendous movement of solidarity and action to grow sweet potatoes, cassava, maize, etc., and share the harvest;
  • In 1960. After the destruction caused by Cyclone Carol we created the movement of Compagnons Bâtisseurs and for 3 to 6 months the young and older volunteers helped rebuild damaged and destroyed houses. I personally spent 3 months of my life on sites as a volunteer rebuilder! Such a drive once started does not die!
  • In 1968, after the bagarres raciales, there was solidarity from numerous Mauritians to relodge displaced people and specially do the reconciliation. For me, once again, another 3 months spent between Plaine Verte and Cité Richelieu!
  • And in 2020 this magnificent movement of solidarity to construct artisanal brooms, clean-up fuel, a real and magnificent ecological awakening of the population. The Wakashio has been, as some have said « un mal pour un bien ». We introduced Environmental studies in our school curricula as early as 1977; this, plus the positive action by NGOs and these voluntary citizens actions auger well for the future of our islands’ environment!

* Speaking of the environment, a lot has said about the need for investing in the green economy as well as in green tourism in view of global warming and the attendant risks of rising sea levels to our tourism industry. Do you think there is more to our island than ‘sun, sea and sand’ and that Mauritius has the potential to develop a green destination tourism industry?

Yes indeed, both a green destination and a medical hub, both a university studies hub and a conference venue. Take the attraction of the Medine Campus to cite but one example, where the tropical garden setting, pleasant living also lead you to obtaining the same top French degree as obtainable in the parent university.

* In the meantime, ‘sun, sea, sand and Covid-free’ might also constitute a unique selling point for the Mauritius destination?

Indeed, including the sympathy over the oil spill!

* Mauritius’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends over an area of about 2.3 million Km². The exercise of our rights over the EEZ means that the country will have access to potentially vast natural and mineral resources in years to come. What’s hampering progress in developing the much-talked about blue economy?

Still a long way to go, from the points of view of protection, exploration, exploitation. In the meantime, some of the resources are being fished out by other nations. We need a Ministry for EEZ and Continental Shelf Resources!

* Published in print edition on 18 August 2020

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