Lessons from the Wakashio catastrophe: ‘Gouverner, c’est prévoir!’

Matters of The Moment

It is patently obvious that the model of governance based on nepotism and cohorts of political appointees and advisors
carries high risks of backfiring. This is evidenced by the long list of costly blunders which have littered the
governance of successive governments

By Mrinal Roy

The oil spill from the bulk carrier Wakashio which ran aground on the reefs off Pointe d’Esny on 25 July has caused an unprecedented ecological catastrophe in the country. It has polluted the pristine lagoon, destroyed marine life, blackened our golden sandy beaches, endangered the Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve and the Blue Bay Marine Area and impaired the coastal wetlands in the region. The fuel oil started spilling into the sea on 6 August, 12 days after the bulk carrier was shipwrecked on the reefs. By 10 August, some 800 metric tons of fuel had spilled into the lagoon and an extensive stretch of the coastal waters of the South East of Mauritius. It has caused tremendous damage to the coastal ecosystem, marine life and the tourism sector. The aerial pictures of the oil spill are chilling.

Response strategies to prevent the dire impact of oil spills have been honed and perfected in the world over the years on the basis of the experience and lessons drawn from previous ecological disasters caused by major oil spills which have occurred in the world over the past decades. Oil spills kill fish, marine birds and life, pollute beaches and have a disastrous impact on tourism, the marine environment and ecosystem. Every country which is exposed to such risks directly related to the density of sea traffic in its waters must necessarily have a well-conceived and efficient contingency plan to prevent the risk of oil spills in its lagoons and coastal waters. As is the case for drills carried out in the context of contingency plans to respond efficiently to disasters such as a plane crash or a tsunami, countries at risk must also be geared through simulated drill exercises to action a prompt and efficient response to prevent oil spills in their coastal waters or minimize its fallout.

Prevent and contain

It is not rocket science to fathom that the most important actions to be taken to prevent an oil spill when a ship runs aground on the reefs is to first and foremost pump out the fuel oil aboard the ship and to deploy oil booms to contain any oil spill within a tightly circumscribed perimeter around the ship so as to securely protect the shore and beaches, marine life, the wetlands as well as the marine and nature reserves in the area.

Have the crying lessons from the shipwreck of another bulk carrier, the MV Benita on the outer reef off the coast of Le Bouchon in June 2016 which caused a minor oil spill into our coastal waters not been learnt? This is the more disconcerting as one of the immediate actions recommended after the MV Benita shipwreck was to ‘prepare an oil pollution response plan which also covers a worst case scenario’. Amidst a wide range of criticisms at the time, there were also calls to ‘have the necessary equipment to deal with such disasters’.

The ecological, environmental and economic damage caused by the Wakashio oil spill is most certainly an example of a disastrous scenario. Does the government not have a well-conceived and robust contingency plan to promptly deal with risks of oil spills from bulk carriers such as the Wakashio which ran aground on our reefs with more than 4,000 metric tons (MT) of fuel oil aboard?

Misguided strategy?

Against such a backdrop the scale of the ecological and economic catastrophe in such a short lapse of time begs a host of legitimate questions. Have government and the authorities not been sufficiently alert to the potent risk of an oil spill? Was the initial strategy adopted to deal with the shipwreck misguided? Why were immediate steps not taken to pump the 4180 MT of fuel oil aboard the Wakashio after it was shipwrecked on 25 July? Why were oil booms not mobilized and promptly deployed around the bulk carrier to coral and contain any oil spill in the sea within a secure perimeter distanced from the shore and vulnerable ecosystems? Why were skimmers, oil pumping barges, oil storage tanks, oil recycling facilities and other essential equipment not mobilized immediately after the Wakashio ran aground on the reefs?

The oil pumping operations which started after the oil spill, on 8 August removed most of the 3380 MT of fuel remaining on board the Wakashio in five days on 12 August despite the operations being hampered by bad weather on 10 August. Could the country have prevented the oil spill had we acted more promptly to pump the fuel oil from the vessel during the 12 days between the shipwreck and start of the oil spill on 6 August from cracks in the hull of the Wakashio, taking into consideration the prevailing weather conditions?

Why was the local expertise in ship building and engineering, marine surveys and diverse marine sciences not tapped for advice and guidance to help manage the potent risks associated with the shipwreck and contain the disastrous impact of the oil spill on our beaches and over a long stretch of our coastal waters? Why is it that it was only when oil starting leaking into the sea from the Wakashio on 6 August that the country woke up to the disconcerting reality that we did not readily have the required equipment and barges to pump the fuel from the ship or the storage tanks to store the fuel pumped out of the Wakashio or the recycling facilities to extract the fuel from the oil mopped from the sea?

It was Taylor Smith, which is a key economic actor in the marine services sector in the country, which finally provided a 5,000 MT tank to government to store the totality of the fuel oil pumped from the Wakashio. The country also did not have the required number of skimmers to mop up the oil spilled into the sea or sufficient oil booms to contain the spread of the oil spill. Why was help from France through Reunion and other friendly countries to urgently pump out the oil aboard the vessel not sought earlier? These cogent questions will hopefully help chart a more efficient response strategy to avert such dire catastrophes in future.

The country must now direct its efforts to the enormous task of using skimmers to mop up the fuel oil spilled into the sea and assuring through tests that the sea is safe from contamination as well as cleaning up our beaches.

Changing a failed system

The standard response from government repeated as a leitmotiv that ‘in Mauritius we do not have the expertise required’ cannot explain the patent lack of preparedness of the authorities to deal efficiently with the diverse risks associated with a shipwreck on our reefs. This overdependence on foreign experts delayed potent actions and a prompt response to stem these risks. It is however essential that independent experts are chosen as opposed to those representing the owners of Wakashio or the insurance companies.

How can a country not have seasoned and talented experts in every field and sector of key importance to assure its robust and sustained growth and development in a competitive world which is more and more driven by pointed skills and expertise? We need to urgently create such an ecosystem in the country. There is no place for the dilettante. This is one of the major failings of the system of governance in the country.

It is patently obvious that the model of governance based on nepotism and cohorts of political appointees and advisors handsomely paid from public funds to head or be on the board of key government institutions and state companies without having the credentials and required expertise, carries high risks of backfiring. This is evidenced by the long list of costly blunders which have littered the governance of successive governments.

The way forward

Satellite tracking of the Wakashio transponder by Windward, a global satellite analytics company, revealed that it entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Mauritius on 23 July, two days before it collided into the reefs without slowing down from its cruising speed. Transponder based systems such as Automatic Identification System (AIS) helps assure the surveillance of a country’s EEZ by providing real time information about the movement of vessels in the EEZ. The flow of trade has created dense sea traffic with more than 2000 vessels passing close to the Mauritian coast in July which enhances the risk of mishaps and accidents. It is therefore important, if that is not presently the case, for government to subscribe to one of the real time vessel tracking services to help better oversee ship movement including illegal fishing in our EEZ and also be better tuned to prevent the risk of other shipwreck of ships on our reefs.

It is equally important that the country has a more robust contingency plan to prevent the risk of another ecological catastrophe. The required pool of equipment comprising barges to pump out fuel oil, oil booms, skimmers as well as storage capacities, etc., must be built at the regional level so that these can be mobilized at short notice should circumstances such as the Wakashio shipwreck warrant it. A team of experts preferably from the region specialized in managing shipwrecks and oil spills, etc., should also be retained as consultants for countries of the region.

The Wakasio was a gruelling acid test for the government. We need as a nation to draw from the many lessons learnt to prevent the recurrence of such an ecological and economic catastrophe in future.

* Published in print edition on 14 August 2020

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