The MV Wakashio is a bulk carrier sailing under the Panama flag, with a deadweight tonnage (the total amount of cargo, stores and bunkers) of 203,130 tons, and 300 metres length, 50 m wide. It was on its way from China to Brazil. The sheer size of the vessel classifies it as an enormous one.
It was carrying 3897 metric tons of low sulphur oil, 207 metric tons of diesel and 90 metric tons of lubricant oil. Its cargo, compared to its deadweight tonnage, means that it was practically empty save for the petroleum products on board.
On 25 July, having deviated from its course, it got stuck on the coral reef off the coast of Pointe d’Esny, an environmentally sensitive zone, and was grounded.
Up to now there are a lot of unanswered questions.
What is known is that:
- Prior to being grounded, the vessel was contacted by the local authorities and did not respond by maintaining radio silence.
- On the 26 July, the Commissioner of Police held a press briefing stating that immediately after the grounding of the vessel the National oil Spill Contingency Plan, under the responsibility of the Director of Environment, was actioned. The Director of Shipping had also contacted the Japanese owner of the vessel to get the services of a salvage company. It is only when the contract between the salvage company and the owner of the vessel would be signed and received by the Director of Shipping that the salvage operations could begin. The specialised equipment required for the salvage would be transported by air cargo to save time. It is only when the salvage company would be on the site that it would make an assessment of the situation, including whether the oil would be pumped out or not from the ship. We were also informed that the situation was under control.
- On 6 August, the oil spillage started.
- As at 11 August, 1000 tons of oil have spilled in the blue lagoon, and 500 tons have been pumped out.
What is not known is:
- Why did the vessel depart from its trajectory? Why a few minutes after the captain had stated that he was on course the vessel was grounded?
- Why after the vessel had departed from the seaway in our territorial waters and did not respond to calls from the local authorities, no action was taken to approach it and possibly stop it?
- Why were calls for assistance from friendly countries delayed?
- Why is it that given our distance far from countries where salvage facilities are available – but nevertheless close to seaways with intense traffic and with the experience of ships grounded on our reefs in the recent past – the authorities have not deemed it necessary to equip the country with the logistics and trained manpower to face such disasters?
- As per the International Maritime Organisation’s Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, all ships of 500 gross tonnage must be fitted with an automatic identification system (AIS). The AIS consists of means to determine and display, amongst other things, the range and bearing of shorelines and navigational marks to assist in navigation and in collision avoidance. AIS transceivers are also used by onshore authorities to view and monitor the movements of ships in the local traffic. Are our local authorities equipped with an AIS which would have allowed them to track the movement of MV Wakashio well in advance when it departed from its route?
Prior to the oil spillage, the authorities were confident that this would not happen. All efforts appeared to be geared to dislocating the vessel from the reef. A press release on the eve of the oil spillage stated that “according to the expert team, the Wakashio is stable contrary as it appeared on those pictures on social media. The vessel is not sinking and will not sink. The process for the Salvage Operation is on-going. All measures are being taken by the Salvage team to re-equilibrate the vessel.”
And the following day that is on Thursday 6th August 2020, the spillage started and all hell broke loose.
It was clear that the authorities had failed and this caused anger among large sections of the local population. People decided to take matters in their own hands and started to deal with the situation with whatever means they could be mobilize.
The excuses put forward by the authorities appear to be lame ones. However two of them need to be addressed.
The first excuse put forward is that the authorities could not act prior to the grounding of the ship as they were complying with established protocols and maritime laws. It is to be remembered that the very same authorities engaged in procurement exercises, bypassing established protocols and even legal requirements during the recent Covid-19 lockdown. Were we not then told that the gravity of the situation was such that they had to act fast in the face of adversity? Does it mean that the authorities will henceforth, come what may, respect and comply with protocols and laws – whatever the consequences to the country?
The second excuse is that, had they bypassed protocols, there would have been voices of protests, mostly from the opposition. This is true. Would it be a difficult choice for a patriot, un vrai fils du sol, to make when faced with a situation where he would be subjected to criticisms by taking initiatives and bypassing the law, even suffering a personal blow to his political career on one hand or conform to strict protocols and parameters, knowing that his motherland would be severely wounded on the other hand? Would that be a Corneilian dilemma for a true patriot?
The choice was made, and the whole country is now crying upon the desecration of the motherland.
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2020