“There are many questions that need to be answered about how this incident was allowed to happen. Trust has been lost”

Interview: Nishan Degnarain – Development Economist

The Wakashio crisis

* ‘This is about a catastrophic and cascading set of systems failures at every level of the country – political, civil service, security, technology…’

* ‘Mauritius is an independent nation with great research scientists. Why does the country need to rely on the polluting nation’s scientists?’

The MV Wakashio struck a coral reef off Pointe d’Esny on July 25, spilling about 1000 tonnes of fuel oil and triggering a state of “environmental emergency”. Clean-up operations are still underway, and these will hopefully mitigate the pollution in the region. What happens next? Who will pay for the oil spill and how much? We sought the views of Nishan Degnarain on these matters. He had earlier contributed a series of articles to Forbes Magazine on the Wakashio shipwreck, the first of which detailed how a global satellite analytics company, using their data analytics platform, had been able to trace the movement of the ‘MV Wakashio’ in our region prior to striking the reef.

Nishan Degnarain is a Development Economist with degrees from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and University of Cambridge. His focus is on Innovation, Sustainability, and Ethical Economic Growth. He currently works with leading Silicon Valley technology companies on sustainable growth opportunities, particularly targeted at lower income nations.

Mauritius Tmes: In a reply to a Parliamentary Question on Tuesday 18th August, the Prime Minister informed the House that our National Coast Guard (NCG) is equipped with the necessary means of surveillance, namely the Coastal Surveillance Radar System, Automatic Identification System, Vessel Monitoring System, Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, and Indian Ocean Regional Information Sharing “for enhancing maritime domain awareness”. He also stated that the “NCG officers based at CSRS stations use the system to identify and interrogate merchant vessels entering our territorial waters. Vessels which are not destined to Port Louis Harbour are directed to clear our coast”. The tools for surveillance are available, but the reasons for the late response to the presence of the MV Wakashio in our territorial waters remains a mystery to this day. Any clue?

Nishan Degnarain: I don’t know the technical details, but this was no ordinary accident. The MV Wakashio is a Capesize-class of vessel. This means that it is big. How big? It is in the top 1% of all vessels in the ocean. Its length is comparable to that of the United States nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier – the biggest that has ever been built. A vessel that size travelled for 1200 miles in a straight line for four days and landed at cruising speed of 11 knots onto the shores of Mahebourg.

Just let that sink in for a moment. This is not a question about which machine was switched on or not. This is about a catastrophic and cascading set of systems failures at every level of the country – political, civil service, security, technology, training, leadership, protocols, practice, drills, procurement, planning. Every level. Wakashio wasn’t a small incident. The subsequent operation to clean up the vessel has left Mauritians around the world feeling embarrassed. It will require a complete overhaul of every single aspect of how Mauritius runs its ocean territory.

* As regards the Wakashio disaster here, it’s being said that the single biggest focus right now is on getting the scientific testing done, and how compensation is calculated. What’s your take on that?

Mauritius needs to understand what is happening. This is the first time Mauritius has been through a major oil spill. The first wave is the initial shock and dealing with the shipping company and host government. They are the polite ones. Very soon, a new set of people will descend on Mauritius. These are ‘specialists’ hired by the insurance company. This happens all over the world. They will not be as friendly as their only task is to limit the amount of compensation that Mauritius is entitled to. Do not be under any other impression – it happens all around the world in the same way. Mauritius would be foolish to think that it is the global exception.

There are those who have successfully defended local communities from large corporate interests trying to reduce the amount of compensation truly needed for an environmental cleanup. Listen to those who have successfully represented island communities against polluters. Ask for credential before deciding who to represent Mauritius.

Two things are about to happen.

First, there is clearly a lot of anger about Wakashio. That anger is raw and real and won’t go away. Mauritius is in a ‘fog of war’ situation that is confusing and disorienting. All countries go through this in the immediate aftermath of a major oil spill. There are many questions that need to be answered about how this incident was allowed to happen. Trust has been lost. To rebuild that trust back will take transparency. Mauritius will get through this, but keep that part of the discussions internal to Mauritius. These include being transparent. I cannot understand why I hear Mauritian officials talk about the effects of the pollution when the international regulator themselves don’t know (see Wednesday’s piece published in Forbes Magazine). Make the shipping company and regulators explain the impact and hold them to account. In the same way, this applies to any cleanup chemicals that may be used in the lagoon called ‘dispersants’. They are often even more harmful than the initial oil spill. Natural alternatives exist, so transparency is key here for the best outcome.

Now on the international side. There are several things moving fast very quickly already. It all centers around who has to pay what, how much and to whom. Let’s understand this.

Clean-up fees are usually calculated in two parts: Blame x Damage incurred. All the discussion so far has been around Blame – how much Mauritian systems, how much ‘rogue employee’, how much systemic issues with the shipping company and beyond. There will be a percentage to decide on who bears what part of that blame.

That is then multiplied by the Damage incurred. In most countries in the world, they never have the opportunity to do a full inventory of the damage (what is called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA). This leads to years and decades of protests from individuals who felt they were never properly heard or that science was never properly collected. Mauritius needs to be careful to not fall into this trap.

It is important not to politicize the science. The shipping company and host nation want Mauritius to use scientists of the polluter’s choice so they can paint a picture of a ‘declining lagoon’ with minimal damage to an already bad situation. I’ve already seen communication on this circulating internationally. Speak to the local NGOs and you will hear examples of success and turnaround. Mauritius was not in decline there – there is evidence.

Mauritius is an independent nation with great research scientists and universities, and access to leaders in this field who can come out and support the cleanup and rehabilitation efforts. Why does Mauritius need to rely on the polluting nation’s scientists? If the polluting nation and shipping company genuinely want to help Mauritius, they will offer a fund for scientists, and Mauritius chooses which scientists to bring in, so the impact can be assessed to a world-class international standard whilst training Mauritian scientists. Mauritius has the opportunity to emerge from this tragedy with some of the best studied oceans in the world. The science needs to be the very best so it can be accepted in an international court of law. Can someone tell me what is wrong with this picture?

There is an opportunity to establish Mauritius as the model ocean state with world-class science to show how a middle-income country can build a world-class ocean capability. This could then be replicated around the world, and support small islands manage their fragile ecosystems more effectively against large corporate interests. It’s in your interest for Mauritius to emerge stronger. Your leaders talk about urgently addressing climate change and loss of biodiversity, yet how serious has your support been to build this capability? We’ve seen the proposals and support offered in the past few years and it is nowhere near where it should be in terms of scope, ambition, innovation. You can do better. You know it. We know it. This is your opportunity to prove it.

This will be a multi-year battle drawn out in international law courts. The only part of this that Mauritius can control is the evidence of the damage (the NRDA). This has to be conducted with a credible science team who can defend the findings in the highest legal courts against some of the world’s best paid lawyers. Mauritius has a track record of beating all odds in legal cases. It can take this on.

The shipping company has already engaged a global crisis communication firm which is actively putting out a narrative to downplay the amount of damages Mauritius is entitled too. If there is a narrative about saying the maximum that a company can pay is limited to $1 billion, does that not raise questions that the true damage to natural ecosystem is far greater. Why are they talking about limits? Let’s get the science to tell us the true impact. Do not let the narrative around ‘Blame’ disrupt the independent work of scientists who are willing to collect this data and defend Mauritius in an international court. Every day that is wasted, is a day less that this evidence can be collected, and the case becomes harder to build.

If the shipping company can pay for a global crisis communication firm (how much are they paying?), then they can well afford to fund Mauritian scientists to collect and store the samples needed. That is the bare minimum that Mauritius should expect from a company that is loud on apologies but quiet on action.

* The Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries & Shipping has, through a press communiqué, invited “any person or entity who has sustained a loss or damage… as a consequence of the grounding of MV Wakashio and ensuing oil pollution” to submit his claim. It also adds that this “should in no circumstances be considered as an acknowledgement of liability by the Government of Mauritius towards any person submitting a claim”. What this means is that the Government does not hold itself in any way responsible for what has happened. Do you agree?

I need to understand where this is coming from. Sometimes, insurance companies say they want an indication. But their true motivation is to point to the original claims and say the damages were limited to what was originally claimed, and not what the science can eventually prove. The Government of Mauritius should get international legal advice on this matter. There is a depth of experience on this.

* You stated in a recent article published by ‘Forbes’ that the clean-up cost resulting from the oil spill from MV Prestige along the coastlines of Spain, Portugal and France was estimated at over $1 billion, which eventually led to a complex 16-year journey to claim these damages. Does this suggest that the compensation process wrt the MV Wakashio oil spill could end up being a long and complex process?

The global shipping and oil industry have a complex set of insurance policies that insure companies for catastrophic losses of multiple billions of dollars. Please get insurance experts to start providing a range of opinions in Mauritian papers. Do not jump on the first opinion. After 10 or 15 opinions, several paths should start to become apparent as to how the Government of Mauritius should proceed. Do not rush to a decision on this today, but listen carefully and do your research on other ‘bunker fuel’ spills.

* You also stated that 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, and with many poorer island and coastal nations not having sophisticated oil and gas industries, there are often insufficient resources to handle even moderate spills, such as the ‘MV Wakashio.’ Does this constitute an opportunity for Mauritius to step in and invest into becoming a regional hub for surveillance, rescue, salvage and other operations in this part of the world?

The heart of Mauritius’ ocean economy is not the water, but the life in the water. That’s where the real value is. Scientists in Mauritius know this and have been carefully working out plans on how to sequence and find value. In the last few years, technologies such as DNA Reading, Writing and Editing and Machine Learning have rapidly accelerated this field (a field called Synthetic Biology). The areas of the coast with the greatest biodiversity hold the greatest promise.

The heart of this new Marine Bioeconomy was supposed to be around the Blue Bay Marine Park to Pointe d’Esny area that could have given a massive employment boost to the towns in the South. In a few months, some of these organisms (many of them microscopic) could be lost forever after millions of years of evolution. Mauritius will need to rapidly sequence them and ensure this data can be safely stored, as this will be the natural heritage of Mauritius that could one day help restore the ecosystem. This is the next horizon for the Mauritian economy.

* English Conservative Party MP Henry Smith has given another twist, in a social media post, to the “Mauritian government’s very slow response” to the “ecological disaster” resulting from the oil spill from MV Wakashio. It “does not bode well for their sovereignty claim they could protect the Chagos Islands’ pristine waters if in control,” he states. Do you think that makes for a solid argument against Mauritius’ sovereignty claim over the Chagos Archipelago, or is it yet another of the arrogant and condescending colonial attitude towards Mauritius’ sovereignty claim?

This could be a cheap shot put out by the global crisis communication firm – one of the world’s largest crisis communications firms – within days of the accident, and might continue to put negative stories about Mauritian authorities and blame in the international media. That needs to be countered by talking about the failings of the global shipping regulators, the shipping companies and shipping insurance themselves.

But it does not mean that serious questions have not been raised by the Wakashio disaster. At the very highest level, it opens up the question about whether Mauritius needs constitutional reform. It is clear that several ministries are too complex for Mauritius to depend on a talent pool of 60 elected members. The Wakashio crisis and the speed with which Mauritians around the world emerged showed that there are one million Mauritians in Mauritius and perhaps two million abroad, some at the very highest levels of their professions. Why isn’t the full force of Mauritian talent being used to advance the country? The world will change rapidly in the next decade, and there are those with the skills who can build a gender-balanced and values-oriented team to navigate this for the benefit of all, not the few.

In today’s more complex world, the most successful countries now have a system of Nominated Ministers for the most complex ministries. There is democratic oversight through parliamentary sub-committees that run televised hearings for any appointment and regular performance management. Such a system would attract the right sort of talent, ensure transparency and also create greater democratic accountability.

Mauritius will be unable to progress much more rapidly until such a system is in place.

* As a Development Economist “focused on innovation, sustainability, and on sustainable growth opportunities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly targeted at lower income nations”, as mentioned in your CV, what’s your assessment of Mauritius’ economic situation, its handicaps and opportunities?

Mauritius had a first cohort of leaders who led it through independence and beyond. Generation 1 leaders. Rapid progress was made in every aspect of Mauritian society for forty years: economic, social, education, health, infrastructure.

Then came a second generation of leaders post independence. These are the leaders that have let Mauritius down. On every indicator, Mauritius has fallen back relative to other countries under their stewardship of the country.

Rather than look forward, Mauritius built a transport system built on a 200-year old technology – trains. In every country in the world, they are looking at developing autonomous vehicle technologies. Why is Mauritius building trains? On outlying islands, Mauritius is wasting a fortune on expensive runways. Elsewhere in the world, drones have been built that can perform similar roles and have a much smaller footprint. In the ocean, why are expensive patrol boats being purchased? Other countries are using autonomous patrol vessels at a fraction of the cost. In education, Mauritian students are nowhere near prepared for the world of Artificial Intelligence that we’re about to see in the next ten years. In Health, the entire world has moved toward Digital Personalized Health and Medicine. Where is the Mauritian medical system?

It is not just Political Leaders but also Business Leaders too. The second generation of Business Leaders post-independence have presided over the largest decline in land-based Mauritian nature and greatest rise in inequality. The growth of tarmac and concrete is inversely correlated with the country’s progress in this regard. The fault there lies with the economic models these leaders have pursued.

If they had genuinely want to change, they would have done it by now – it is not rocket science. There is a Third Generation that was born after Mauritian independence. They understand all the phrases I’ve just written. Perhaps it’s time they be passed the baton to build a better socio-economic model for Mauritius that respects and cherishes nature and can understand the world we’re now in.

* What do you think will the post-Covid 19 pandemic economy will look like for a country like Mauritius?

Covid-19 was a dress rehearsal for climate change. The rest of the world is only just waking up to this and are now putting in place new systems to build back better. When you don’t, there have been protests in Lebanon and the US following the George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers. These incidents were not the cause of the protests, but the flame against the deep, underlying structural issues that were never addressed. Mauritius (and a third generation of business and Government leaders) needs to think very carefully about this.

* As for the way forward, what are the do’s and don’ts?

Don’t forget about the Wakashio. There are important systems level questions that need to have a space for open debate. This is not about politics, but about systems used in the civil service, performance management, organizational structures. Mauritius will not progress unless they are addressed. The media needs to give space for a mature discussion about these issues that make sense for the generation of business and Government leaders born after independence. Just contrast the average age of those who went to the front lines of the Wakashio, cut their hair and defended the country with the average age of Board and Executives in every parastatal entity.

The Wakashio may be the transitional point for widespread generational change.

* Published in print edition on 21 August 2020

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