The lessons of the MV Wakashio disaster. An International Perspective
‘There are a number of unknowns involved which will matter significantly in learning the lessons from the shipwreck’
Christian Bueger is Professor at the University of Copenhagen and a Honorary Professor at the University of Seychelles. He is one of the leading experts in maritime security. In an article in The Diplomat, he argued that governments in small states need to see oil spills as national priorities. They need to undertake reviews of the national response plans in the light of the disaster.
* How has the disaster been internationally received?
The disastrous oil spill in Mauritius has shocked honeymooners, beach lovers, divers and environmentalists across the world. How will the pristine beaches and coral reefs look like at their next visit? That’s the question they must be asking themselves. For the tourism industry in Mauritius the spill is bad news. Huge financial resources will be needed for recovery and conservation activities, but also for promoting the country as a green destination, once the initial clean-up is done.
* What are the next steps the country should take?
It is now time to think about the lessons Mauritius might learn from the disaster. The government needs to carefully review what went wrong. Together with civil society, the authorities also need to make efforts so that a repeat of a disaster of this scale does not happen in another country. Mauritius has to become an international champion advocating for better prevention in Africa but also amongst the Small Island Developing States.
I think we need to start with a recollection of what by now is established, and what is unknown and needs urgent investigation.
* What are from your perspective the most important facts on the disaster?
A number of basic facts are now well established. To revisit these from the outside:
The bulk carrier MV Wakashio grounded on 25 July. No oil spill occurred then. The National Coast Guard and Special Mobile Force were quickly on site and took preventive actions. The government activated its National Oil Spill Contingency Plan the following day.
By 28 July, the Dutch company Smit Salvage was contracted to work with local logistics giant CELERO to keep the MV Wakashio afloat and pump the over 4000 tons of oil and diesel out of it. The first of the four tugboats to assist in this operation arrived three days later.
The recovery operation was ready to begin. The environment minister was confident that all “necessary precautionary measures to prevent any kind of pollution at sea” had been taken.
The weather conditions were against the minister’s plans. The recovery operation was put on halt. The sea was too rough. By August 5th some minor oil sheen was observed around the vessel. The “the risk of oil spill was still low”, the Minister of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping argued.
Only hours later, the MV Wakashio flooded and started to sink the next morning. Oil started to spill into the sea at a high rate. The Prime Minister declared a “national environment emergency”. The foreign Affairs minister called upon the UN, the EU, its neighbour France, as well as other countries for emergency assistance. A large-scale recovery operation was launched with thousands of volunteers, and support from France and the UN.
At the time of the interview the leak was reported to have been stopped, and the remaining fuel had been pumped out of the vessel.
This, I think, are the core facts of how the disaster unfolded. There are a number of unknowns involved which will matter significantly in learning the lessons from the shipwreck.
* What are these unknowns?
Attention has been focused and rightly so on why the MV Wakashio ran aground. An investigation is required that reconstructs the grounding in detail.
While this will take weeks if not months, lessons from other oil spills may give us an indication of the answers we will obtain. In the majority of spills, some form of crew fatigue or minor technical faults are part of the explanation. It is likely that the investigation will lead to a story like this. We can expect that the crew and shipping company will also refer to the Covid-19 situation and the stress these have imposed on the international seafaring community.
There are however other open questions, in particular, in relation to the response by the government.
* What kind of questions do you think the government should answer?
I think the Mauritian public needs answers to a series of questions. These are not necessarily about personal responsibilities. A disaster like this should not necessarily be used for political purposes. It is more important to find out what led to the disaster.
An issue that certainly requires explanation relates to the choice of the salvage company by the government. We also need to know what alternative companies, recovery plans or courses of action the government could choose from before the spill occurred. What were the reasons for this choice, and what alternatives would have been available to react differently?
A related question concerns the implementation of the recovery operation. Why did it take such a long time to kick start the operation? While the bad weather was blamed for the delay, would there have been ways to circumvent it and act differently?
* Are you implying that one of the causes of the disaster is that the government contracted the wrong company which could not implement a proper response in time?
The point cannot be to blame the salvage company for the disaster, or to argue that the government made the wrong choices. But it is important to find out what options the government had, and what criteria it used to decide between these. Were it price calculation, reputation, or other factors that mattered? And were there any alternatives?
There was something I found puzzling when I started to reconstruct the event in detail. How could the government be so confident, at least in public, that the situation was under control, but then once the spill started it quickly admitted to international news media that they lacked skills and expertise and were “insufficiently equipped to handle this problem.”
The government should be transparent about why and how this shift of interpretation occurred and whether the reliance on outside experts, or industry played a role here.
* What other observations did you find surprising?
Mauritius is next to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world: the international shipping route between Asia, Europe and South America around the Cape of Good Hope. Mauritius has been at risk for a long time. It was fortunate that such a disaster did not happen before.
An event like this could have been anticipated. It is always easy to argue this in the aftermath, but I find it puzzling that there was such a lack of preparedness? Why did the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan fail in such a spectacular way?
* What will happen after the clean-up is done?
The clean-up will take quite some time to start with. The oil and diesel that leaked is quite toxic, so it will take a lot of time and efforts. It time now to start thinking about what kind of measures could help the marine habitat to recover.
Also, the question of what happens to the wreck of the MV Wakashio needs to be urgently addressed. It is likely that the wreck contains further toxic substances.
It is now also time to think to examine the disaster in detail and consider the legal consequences, and the question of compensation as well.
* Do you think the financial compensation the country will receive will pay for the clean-up?
Based on other oil spill litigation cases, financial compensation will firstly take a long time. The destruction needs to be economically calculated, and responsibilities and obligations clarified. Mauritius will receive some basic compensation.
Yet, how do you calculate the value of an eco-system, the price of restoring a marine habitat, or the cost of a dead bird? Whatever compensation received it will not do justice to the damage done. Ocean recovery will take years, if not decades. And let’s not forget the reputational damage, and the consequences for tourism in Mauritius as well.
* You suggest that Mauritius has now special responsibilities and should become an international champion?
The whole country, not only the government, must ensure that the experience with the spill are recorded. The core lesson from the disaster must be documented and shared internationally. A civil society, or university-led taskforce or commission could be the right way of organizing this.
It is important that other countries, in particular small island states learn from this event, which will allow them to review their strategies, do exercises and develop their capacities.
Any crisis is also an opportunity. Mauritius must now become an international champion advocating internationally for better strategies and more capacities. It must take leadership on the issue in forums such as the Southern African Development Community, the Indian Ocean Rim Association or the African Union. Also, the engagement in the International Maritime Organization, the core regulatory body of the shipping industry needs to be re-thought. This organization is the core platform in which Mauritius can advocate for a better regulation of the shipping industry and for more capacity building efforts to help countries to prepare.
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2020