“Mauritius has signed no less than 30 IMO conventions… However, a national oil contingency plan requires regular updating”

Interview: Raj Prayag, former Director of Environment

* ‘Experts’ advice comes with responsibility and liability and, unless you are a better expert, it would not be a prudent to act otherwise’

* Blue Economy: ‘This is easier said than done. If it was easy to develop a blue economy, I am sure it would have been done already’

The MV Wakashio struck a reef at Pointe d’Esny on July 25. Fuel started leaking from the cracked vessel last week and officials and environmentalists feared the worst. The Japanese firm that operates the MV Wakashio – Mitsui OSK Lines – has been involved in accidents before, including a 2006 oil spill in the Indian Ocean. Many questions remain unanswered as to how the vessel ran aground on the reef of Mauritius as well as the response of the Mauritian authorities to the shipwreck. Raj Prayag, former director of Environment, says it is difficult to make a proper and detailed assessment of the management of the oil spill in the absence of precise information regarding the strategy deployed by the Incident Command Centre, but offers an insight into the development of contingency planning in the field from the late 1980s and how it has evolved over the years.

Raj Prayag is a Chartered Civil Engineer and is the Vice President of the Institution of Engineers Mauritius; he was also at one time the Regional Project Coordinator for the Commission de l’océan Indien and the World Bank, and chairperson of the Mauritius Oceanographic Institute. He is presently the chairman of the Central Procurement Board.

Mauritius Times: What’s your assessment of the management of the oil spill resulting from the grounding of MV Wakashio off Pointe d’Esny since 25th July in terms of the response and mitigation measures taken by the authorities?

Raj Prayag: It is important at the outset to explain that the Mauritian government had, as far back as 1987, then under the leadership of Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth, taken the initiative of enlisting the cooperation of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and, with their assistance, of developing an oil spill contingency plan for the country.

Two main objectives were achieved, namely 1) the formulation of a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP), and 2) the creation of a Coastal Sensitivity Atlas (with 19 maps on a scale of 1:30,000). The Atlas covers the entire coastline of Mauritius, inclusive of the islets. It is colour-coded to indicate the priority areas for containment and clean up. Living and socioeconomic resources are indicated by symbols and suitable response actions are specified, detailing the sensitive resources of Mauritius and the strategies to protect them. Both the Contingency Plan and the Sensitivity Atlas were prepared and finalised by Maylo Murday (a Mauritian operating from New Jersey, USA) and Eric Gundlach in January 1990.

This NOSCP was revisited and updated between 1998 and 2002 when the World Bank funded the Western Indian Oil Spill Contingency Project for the IOC Island States. In the process, essential equipment and materials such as booms, floating tanks, absorbents, dispersant, skimmer pumps, etc., were provided, and, very importantly, the necessary training was provided to all major players such as the SFM, NCG, MPA and DOE, etc.

The scope of the Oil Spill Contingency plan was further reinforced between 2008 and 2012 when the World Bank (again) funded another Western Indian Ocean Marine Highway project with a huge component on ‘National Oil Spill’ that included the setting up of a Regional Oil Spill response Centre in Mauritius. Again, the Mauritian Units concerned were provided with operational training on the management of oil spills; this time the training was extended to the legal field as well: two lawyers were trained on maritime laws and conventions such as the CLC, International Funds, Marpol, etc., at the UN University in Malta. Mauritius was the envy of other countries of the region for its proactiveness and foresightedness with regard to oil spill contingency planning.

To answer your question, it is difficult for me to make a proper and detailed assessment of the management of the oil spill from MV Wakashio in the absence of precise information regarding the strategy deployed by the Incident Command Centre, except from what I have gleaned from media reports. However, given the weather conditions prevailing with strong southeast winds pushing the MV Wakashio onto the reef, I cannot imagine what could have been done differently. With the benefit of hindsight, we can give our opinion on what should have been, but the situation is what it is. Only an enquiry by the authorities, mainly the Director of Shipping, can establish the facts from the moment the ship entered our territorial waters to its grounding.

by the way, let me add that ‘Part V – Spill And Environmental Emergency’ sections 29 to 33 of the Environment Protection Act define the power and the responsibilities of the Director of the Department of Environment, from the moment a spill occurs to its clean-up and the preparation of claims for prejudices suffered. And Section 34 provides for the Prime Minister to declare an Environmental Emergency upon advice from the Minister responsible for Environment.

* PM Pravind Jugnauth stated in Parliament, this week, that the experts of the Salvage Team had ruled out the possibility of any fuel pumping due to bad weather conditions between July 27 and August 6, and instead worked on trying to tow the ship. One should reasonably expect the experts to know better, isn’t it?

This is an area which requires extensive specialised expertise, and experts in oil spill management are trained to do just that; this is what they do day in, day out. Now if the experts advised that that was the only way to deal with the situation at that point in time, that was the best advice available at the time. Experts’ advice comes with responsibility and liability and, unless you are a better expert, it would not be a prudent to act otherwise.

Protection and indemnity insurance, more commonly known as P&I insurance, or the P&I Club or the secretariats of CLC and the International Funds or the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd (ITOPF), which is the leading, not-for-profit marine ship pollution response advisers providing impartial advice worldwide on effective response to spills of oil, etc, would not have taken it kindly had the authorities gone against the advice tendered by the recognised and accredited experienced experts.

* The Prime Minister also stated that the worst case scenario is being envisaged even if the leak from a damaged oil tank on board the MV Wakashio had stopped; the ship still had 2,000 tonnes of oil in two other, undamaged tanks. We do not know at this stage how things will unfold, but what do you estimate would be the extent of ecological damage to the surrounding seas and coastlines if the worst were to happen?

My understanding is that all the oil from the remaining two tanks was to be emptied and probably has been emptied by the time of this interview.

If so, then the consequential oil remaining on board will be residuals sticking to the sides of the tanks. Ideally we should try to “depollute” the tanks, etc. However, in the present circumstances where huge cracks have appeared on the ship’s body and it is showing signs of splitting apart, this would be quasi impossible to do.

Post spill, the choices are either (1) to spray the oil slick with an appropriate dispersant so that the oil coagulates and settles onto the sea floor, but this is only recommended in seas at a depth of over 20 m. This is definitely not a solution near any reef barrier or near a sensitive protected zone; (2) maximum skimming of the oil from sea surface and minimise the volume that might drift towards the lagoon and the shoreline; and (3) shoreline clean up.

The techniques for undertaking these three measures are well defined in guidelines provided by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association, ITOPF and IMO, and hands-on training have been provided to those concerned with the updating of the NOSCP and those responsible for managing an oil spill in all Western Indian Ocean countries.

The prevailing South East current and surface winds will determine where the oil will end up, and the existing NOSCP provides for scenarios to calculate areas likely to be impacted. Beaches are the easiest to clean since the techniques for beach cleaning are well known. As far as it is humanly possible, mangroves must to be protected by booms, because once the oil penetrates the mangroves and get in-between the stools, it becomes impossible to flush out the oil. Officers of the Mauritius Oceanography Institute would be best placed to carry out an assessment of any short-, medium- or long-term impacts on mangroves.

* Since much of the country’s economic growth has been the result of the expansion of its luxury tourism sector, one would have expected that Mauritius would have worked out the contingency measures and invested in the necessary equipments as well as the training of local expertise to deal with such disasters. We do not seem to have made much progress on this score, isn’t it?

Mauritius has been the first country in the Western Indian Ocean to have a NOSCP and to have the equipment and provided training for the main stakeholders. We had also organised oil spill drills at Bain des Dames, Albion as well as at Port Mathurin, Rodrigues.

Mauritius has signed no less than 30 IMO conventions including the MARPOL, SOLAR, FUNDS 92, OPRC 90, and OPRC/HNS 2000. However, a national oil contingency plan requires regular updating, on-the-ground testing and training of the main stakeholders. The equipment also needs to be kept in working conditions through regular testing and exercises.

This is very important because in our public service, officers are regularly transferred from one service to another and therefore through regular exercises, you get to train newcomers to the plan. Furthermore, equipment kept over long periods in containers under tropical conditions tends to deteriorate faster and hence regular checks, testing and servicing is a must.

* Speaking of our tourism industry, do you share the view that this thriving sector will be doomed within the next five to six decades in view of rising sea levels across the world? If there is a very real risk of that happening, what do you think could be envisaged in terms of mitigating measures to save our tourism industry?

Scientific studies undertaken by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed that sea level rise due to global warming is already occurring. The consequent climate change is giving rise to dramatic events such as floods, droughts, the melting of ice caps, and hence sea level rise. Scientists are convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that this is already happening.

All Small Islands States including Mauritius can only take measures to mitigate the impacts and plan according to projected impact scenarios over time. Today through mathematical models it is possible to work out the impacts of sea level rise, say for a sea level rise by 50 cm or by 75 cm or 100 cm. With this knowledge, coastal development plans and the tourism sector will have to adapt to the changing scenario over time.

Will there be buildings close to the shoreline with rising high-water mark? Those responsible for planning would be best placed to advise. Also food security is a major problem associated with climate change worldwide. It is very comforting to see that in Mauritius steps are being taken in anticipation of climate change by encouraging new and innovative farming practices in controlled environments, e.g. in green houses to guard against severe drought or severe flooding.

* What about the highly publicized ‘Blue Economy’ project, which was sold as having a great potential for higher and faster GDP growth? Have we made some progress or is it still stalled at the study stage?

This is easier said than done. If it was easy to develop a blue economy, I am sure it would have been done already. I understand that Mauritius has sought expert assistance from amongst other agencies the World Bank to develop this sector. It will surely happen, but it will no doubt require massive investments and time for it to take shape.

* As Vice President of the Institution of Engineers Mauritius since 2016, how do you see the future as an engineer?

I am very optimistic for the future. We have shown great resilience in moments of crisis, and we will all rise to the challenges we are facing. It is also a matter of pride that Mauritians hold important high-level jobs at international level and this is to the credit of Mauritius.

A lot of effort is being made by our three universities that run engineering degrees to review their programmes to meet the benchmark set by the Washington Accord, an international agreement which establishes a benchmark standard of technical proficiency for engineers, which is internationally recognised. This means that our engineering graduates will be recognised internationally, and it will also encourage foreign engineering students to study in Mauritius. We will thereby develop Mauritius as a regional educational hub in the Western Indian Ocean zone.

In a changing world where technologies are constantly evolving, we need a new breed of engineers who can think on their feet and solve complex problems. We are working hard at the Institution of Engineers Mauritius since 2016 to make this happen.

* Published in print edition on 14 August 2020

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