MV Wakashio Disaster: The Aftermath

Editorial

There’s a lot, perhaps even too much that has been said and written about the shipwreck of the MV Wakashio. Now it is time for the authorities to proceed coolly and with determination in the handling of the grave consequences and implications of that accident as regards the marine ecosystem that has been impacted and about the social and economic fallouts that concern livelihoods and the tourism sector, given the negative image that has already been projected of the country as tourist destination.

There are three main aspects to this incident: one is to establish how the MV Wakashio got grounded on the reef; secondly, the response of the authorities as a result; and thirdly, the compensation that will become due for the cross-cutting, extensive damage done.

In his interview to this paper today, Nishan Degnarain who has already written comprehensive articles on the incident in Forbes magazine, provides some guidance in this matter. As regards how the vessel deviated from its path and hit the reef, this is a matter for the shipping company and the regulators to sort out, and they have to be held to account for that.

When it comes to the response of the authorities, there are many questions that they need to answer to the satisfaction of the people, because so far all the explanations that have been given have been found wanting in one way or another. According to the views expressed by experts in interviews in this paper and other platforms, the country had the necessary range and sophistication of equipment and of human expertise to swing into action without delay to prevent an oil spill, in which task the shipping company and regulators also ought to have promptly joined in with equipment as well as human resources. Why did this not happen?

The same thing applies to the clean-up once the oil spill had occurred, namely the responsibility of the shipping company and the regulators, and here the use of the appropriate dispersants was crucial. Apparently, there are natural dispersants as opposed to cleanup chemicals which can increase the damage to the marine ecosystem, whereas the natural ones do not.

The most crucial aspect is the third one, which experience with past shipwrecks and oil spills points to potentially a long-drawn legal battle that will stretch over years, but we hope not 16 years as was the case with the Amoco Cadiz disaster off the coast of Spain and Portugal.

And here there are some serious obstacles that will have to be faced by the Mauritian authorities. They will concern the communication strategy to be adopted to counter adverse propaganda that has already begun against the country; a full inventory through rigorous collection and documentation of the scientific evidence about the damage done to the marine ecosystem, and similarly for the socio-economic impact; and the constitution of the best legal team that will defend the country’s case at the international level.

Views have been expressed by English Conservative Party MP Henry Smith to the effect that Mauritius’ handling of the present accident “does not bode well for their sovereignty claim they could protect the Chagos Islands’ pristine waters if in control” and, further, it has been argued that that the Blue Bay lagoon that was already in decline and therefore only minimal damage was caused by the oil spill. One must therefore be careful here about accepting experts forced upon the country by the shipping company and host nation, whose assistance here must take the form of funds that will enable Mauritius to choose its own scientists and experts. It goes without saying that these will have to work in tandem with local ones to prepare the required dossier.

As regards the legal team, here too we will have to recruit the best lawyers both for defending the scientific evidence and for the complex compensation aspects, which in turn depend on equally complex insurance policies which the shipping companies contract.

On the other hand, there is a possibility that a successful outcome may help Mauritius to emerge stronger, as a middle income country with world class science and on the way to building world class ocean capacity.

If the authorities henceforth play the game more transparently and with the national interest genuinely at heart, we may well win this battle with flying colours.


* Published in print edition on 21 August 2020

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