A lot of questions have been raised by the opposition, NGOs and civil society following the grounding of MV Wakashio off Pointe d’Esny on July 25 and leading to Mauritius’ worst oil disaster. The view has been expressed that much of the damage that has been caused by the ongoing oil spillage could have been averted if priority had been given to pumping the oil from the ship rather than trying to save the vessel. Questions have been raised about our deficiency in terms of equipment and local expertise to deal with such a disaster especially for an island washed by the seas of the Indian Ocean and with a foreign exchange- and job-generating tourism industry, which is itself dependent on the quality of our environment. It has also been rightly argued that Mauritius can surely afford to do that if our priorities were properly set (rather than invest in white elephants and prestige projects) and that proactive measures in terms of equipment and expertise would have been taken to protect our environment and allow the authorities to deal with such accidents.
What has been mostly criticised appears to be the wait-and-see approach perceived to have been taken by the Government since the grounding of MV Wakashio late July until the oil spill disaster struck. Environment minister Kavi Ramano only recently stated that there were no indications that it would come to that (“nou pas ti ena indication qui pou arrive ça stage-là”). This would suggest that the worst case scenario had not been envisaged, contrary to what is usually prescribed in contingency plans whether in relation to oil spills or otherwise. What makes matters worse is that the Mauritian authorities are indeed equipped with an Oil Spill Contingency Plan made available to the government in 1990 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) developed in conjunction with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – a plan authored by M. Murday and E.R. Gundlac, and which covered the ‘legal, mobilisation, and operational aspects’.
In fact oil spill contingency plans are mandated by law in several countries; oil-producing countries and others where environmental and economic resources are threatened by oil pollution have had such plans drawn up since more than two decades now. We are not aware if the UNEP-IMO Contingency Plan for Mauritius has been updated in light of the increase in vessel traffic in this part of the Indian Ocean and of advances in technology which will allow for better and speedier response. M. Murday and E.R. Gundlac do emphasize in their introductory note the need for provision to be made for ‘the acquisition of equipment, training of spill response personnel, and review and updating of the plan’.
We shall not indulge in the political squabbles sparked off since the oil spillage had become visible; what is of concern to us is the extent of damage to the surrounding seas and coastlines and to our tourism industry if the worst were to happen. Something is clearly amiss at the institutional and political levels in terms of preparedness and the decision-making process for such disasters for a country which has the ambition of becoming a petroleum hub and which commands an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends over an area of about 2.3 million Km². Although we have been unable to develop a local fishing industry to date – all tuna fishing vessels operating in the Mauritius EEZ are foreign-flagged vessels, the exercise of our rights over the EEZ and Continental Shelf means that the country will have access to potentially vast natural and mineral resources in years to come.
We have for some time now been talking about developing an Ocean economy. The catastrophe which has befallen us clearly indicates that we have no idea of our priorities and where we are going. The resources which form part of the economy include our reefs, our sea life, coastal areas and sea waters. Clearly, these have to be protected if we really mean business. We are failing to do so and now our ignorance and lack of purpose is laid bare for all to see.
A ray of hope in all this. For the first time since we have become a nation, while the authorities were completely lost in their actions and rhetoric and were at pains to find their bearings, the population, young and old, irrespective of political colour or social status, joined hands and took the initiative of handling the mess created by the spillage. Kudos to them.
This augurs well for our nation.
* Published in print edition on 11 August 2020