The MV Wakashio shipwreck: Machine or human failure?

 

We have to be better prepared in order not to have to face another maritime disaster of this magnitude. As it is, the cost of the present one is going to be enormous, and not only financially but on the whole ecosystem

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

When I first read about the shipwreck of MV Wakashio on the coral reef off Mahebourg coast, the first question that came to my mind as a layman was – how come such a huge vessel is travelling so close to the coast of Mauritius? Aren’t they supposed to keep a safe distance away, if there is such a provision in international maritime regulations? I don’t know the answer, but I am relieved to find that there is some serious thinking that this shipwreck has given rise to, in the form of an article in Forbes that was forwarded to me. It is written by Nishan Degnarain, a young professional whom I met several years ago when he took part in the final stages of the preparation of our Health Sector Strategy, and also in the pre-Budgetary discussions at the Ministry of Finance (2011 as far as I recollect).

“No country is entirely safe from such a catastrophe, the like of which has happened with some uncanny regularity in the world’s oceans. Satellite data have revealed ‘how crowded global shipping lanes have become, making them impossible to manage through human eyes alone’ with vessel traffic having increased four-fold in the past twenty years. In fact, according to Nishan Degnarain, new and more sophisticated satellite technology developed in the past decade, literally a technological revolution in small cube and nano satellites, not only allows the ongoing tracking of vessel movement across the world’s oceans but ‘can also be used forensically – effectively to go back in time to track the activities on the ocean’…”


The article under reference is titled ‘How Satellites Traced The Fateful Journey Of The Ship That Led To Mauritius’ Worst Oil Spill Disaster* (Forbes – Aug 9, 2020 -) with Nishan Degnarain as Contibutor who covers ‘innovation within the green/blue industrial revolution’.

The major concern is of course how to prevent such a disaster in future, as the author points out, as ‘Questions are being asked about how this happened, could it have been prevented, and more importantly what steps should now be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring anywhere else in the world’. No country is entirely safe from such a catastrophe, the like of which has happened with some uncanny regularity in the world’s oceans. Satellite data have revealed ‘how crowded global shipping lanes have become, making them impossible to manage through human eyes alone’ with vessel traffic having increased four-fold in the past twenty years.

In fact, according to the author, new and more sophisticated satellite technology developed in the past decade, literally a technological revolution in small cube and nano satellites, not only allows the ongoing tracking of vessel movement across the world’s oceans but ‘can also be used forensically – effectively to go back in time to track the activities on the ocean’.

And so, ‘one leading company in this field, Israeli-based satellite analytics company, Windward’, through its data analytics platform has ‘been able to trace the movement of the MV Wakashio over the past week of its travels, including the critical last 2 days prior to impact’, the author remarks that ‘this shows how the potential of earth observation satellites can bring radical transparency and accountability to activities on the ocean’.

Tracking the ‘history, trajectory and speed of MV Wakashio’ shows that the vessel ‘entering the national waters (Exclusive Economic Zone) of Mauritius two days prior to its grounding on 23 July just before 11 pm’. And here come the critical questions about ‘why the vessel’s GPS tracking did not indicate that it was heading toward an impact with land, or why local authorities did not intervene with sufficient warning, given the clear trajectory toward the island’, and why lessons from a previous vessel grounding in 2016 the Benita off Le Bouchon) were not learnt, and early intervention and thus another accident averted. Another puzzling question that will need an answer is why did the vessel not slow down prior to the impact, although it was ‘travelling at 11 knots, which is standard for bulk carrier ships at sea’.

Further, relating to how crowded shipping lanes have become, ‘during the month of July, over 2000 vessels passed close by the Mauritian coast in one of the most concentrated shipping lanes in the world connecting Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America (the historic trade route prior to the opening of the Suez Canal). Comparing these mainstream shipping lane traffic with the trajectory of the MV Wakashio would have revealed it had been on a collision course with Mauritius for several days and was much further North than other vessels using this shipping lane’. (italics added)

The author makes a case of ‘The need for an Ocean Mission Control’, because ‘with many poorer island and coastal nations not having sophisticated oil and gas industries, there are often insufficient resources to handle even moderate spills’, a fact which has been officially acknowledged, since we clearly do not have the adequate resources nor the expertise to handle such a disaster. But troubling questions remain about the delay in response.

There is no alternative to harnessing the latest technology available, which can send ‘early warning indicators to Port Authorities for any suspicious activity ahead of time, reducing any delays or human errors in assessing millions of data points’.

Wrapping up, the author states that ‘the disaster in Mauritius shows there is a need for the following:

  • Reform of vessel registration to identify the risky operators on the ocean and ensure fair and transparent accountability of the shipping industry.
  • Governments must embrace new technologies, such as Satellites and Machine Learning to more effectively safeguard their ocean territories and natural ecosystems.
  • Creation of a global ‘Ocean Mission Control’ to support local authorities around the world, particularly in poorer countries who would otherwise lack critical scale to access such resources. The governance of such a resource will need to be more akin to an agile, purpose-driven Silicon Valley startup than traditional international structures.
  • Accelerate the transition to electrification of the global shipping fleet. This would have meant no polluting heavy bunker fuel even if a vessel ran aground. Government R&D programs have been significantly under-investing in the technologies needed to transform global shipping and create a new multi-trillion dollar new sector, despite publicly pledging the need to meet Climate objectives’.

To what extent as a small island state Mauritius can take part in this process is a matter for the authorities to decide, but clearly we have to be better prepared in order not to have to face another maritime disaster of this magnitude. As it is, the cost of the present one is going to be enormous, and not only financially but on the whole ecosystem. This will add to the impact of Covid-19 on our economy, and citizens have every reason to be worried – as indeed they are already.

RN Gopee

* ‘How Satellites Traced The Fateful Journey Of The Ship That Led To Mauritius’ Worst Oil Spill Disaster’ is available on:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/nishandegnarain/2020/08/09/how-satellites-traced-the-fateful-journey-of-the-ship-that-led-to–mauritius-worst-oil-spill-disaster/


* Published in print edition on 11 August 2020

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