Last week we carried an interview of Prof Christian Bueger, director of SAFE SEAS and a professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, who since 2010 has also been studying issues of maritime security, counter-piracy operations, capacity building and maritime domain awareness. Speaking of the MV Wakashio shipwreck off Pointe d’Esny, he stated that 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.’ In another contribution to this paper, this week, he brings another perspective to the debate about the level of preparedness of the authorities for a disaster of this scale. And his conclusion is that ‘evidence indicates that Mauritius was very well prepared; the event did not come as a surprise. Importantly, the country dealt with similar incidents very successfully before.’
A look into the archives reveals that the government was anything but unprepared, suggests Prof Bueger. Mauritius was one of the first African countries to finalize in 1990 an oil spill contingency plan with support from the International Maritime Organization and the UN Environmental Programme. The country has also been one of the beneficiaries of the ‘Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Planning’ project, funded and run by the World Bank, which allowed for the updating of the national contingency plan. Furthermore, thanks to the Marine Highway Development and Prevention Project, funded by the Global Environmental Facility, the country received more training in oil spill prevention; the Contingency Plan was also updated and reviewed, following which Mauritius received training under the UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme and the Nairobi Convention. He also adds that Mauritius is ‘one of the main beneficiaries of the MASE project of the European Union under which maritime security structures are developed for the region, and as part of these projects, between 2003 and 2012, the country held five larger exercises and drills on oil spill prevention’.
In short, the country benefited from quite substantial capacity building assistance by the United Nations. Governmental representatives regularly participated in workshops and conducted training exercises. Only some months before the disaster occurred, that is in March 2020, representatives from the ministry of environment and the ministry of fisheries of Mauritius participated in the UN Environmental Programme-organised workshop on Cooperation in preparedness and response to marine pollution incidents in Zanzibar, where they gave a presentation on the country’s national oil spill preparedness status. ‘The records of the meeting reveal, first, that officials were very well aware that the country is at a high risk of oil spills due to the vicinity of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Second, it documents that the country had a range of sophisticated planning, response and disaster assessment tools,’ reveals Prof Bueger.
As regards practical experience of such disasters, the evidence shows that the authorities dealt with two major cases in the past years – though not on the scale of the MV Wakashio incident. ‘In April 2005 a collision occurred off Port Louis between the MSC Katie and the MV Nordsun. The MSC Katie sustained cracks and was grounded on a reef to avoid sinking. Mauritian authorities successfully prevented an oil spill.’ Second, in June 2016, the MV Benita ran aground not too far from the site of the recent oil spill. ‘While the vessel was damaged, a salvage company was quick on site. The contractors pumped the fuel out of the vessel, and only a very minor spill occurred’ – which brings Prof Bueger to conclude: ‘Mauritius was not only aware of the risk and had elaborated planning tools, the authorities had experience with incidents of this kind.’
Given the level of preparedness at the institutional level as amply outlined by Prof Bueger, this begs a number of questions on the much-delayed response of the authorities to the MV Wakashio shipwreck and the resulting oil spill. Was the government not advised or alerted about the risk of an oil spill, which would explain why the decision was not taken in good time to pump out the 4180 MT of fuel oil aboard the MV Wakashio before the first spill became visible on 6th August? A number of rumours and conspiracy theories have been doing the rounds lately, which cast doubts on the motivations for the time-lag to action by the authorities. Only a proper and independent inquiry into this matter will be able to shed light on what was the expert advice that was given to the Prime Minister, as he said in his interview that he had deferred to such advice. And as, if not more importantly, what elements were factored into the formulation of this advice, such as the then weather conditions, their impact on the seas in the area and specifically around the Wakashio, any calculations that were made therefrom i.e. the quantification of the risk level, etc, and thereafter what actions had been or should have been undertaken by the authorities.
This inquiry will also hopefully examine the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 2007 and review, if deemed necessary, the role and responsibilities of the Director of Shipping, who by virtue of Section 131 (2) ‘shall be the Receiver of Wrecks’, in which capacity he ‘shall exercise general direction and supervision over all matters relating to wreck and salvage’, and is perhaps best placed to evaluate any input given to the Prime Minister. On the other hand, it will surely be realised by the authorities that by shedding light on the circumstances associated with this incident, they will also lay to rest the conspiracy theories. Acknowledging frankly any mishap can only help to make them better prepared for the future, and that should be the core purpose of this exercise.
* Published in print edition on 18 August 2020