Learning from Wakashio

There have been too many as yet unanswered questions which could help separate the wheat from the chaff in the several narratives that have been vented both by local and international media

 By Jan Arden

As announced in August 2020, Government set up in September a Court of Investigation chaired by Abdurrafeek Hamuth, former Puisne Judge, to investigate into, and report on, inter-alia, the circumstances leading to the grounding of the MV Wakashio off the coast of Pointe d’Esny on 25 July 2020 at around 19.30 hours and the breach of its hull. The terms of reference were published and looked comprehensive enough to cover the variety of causal factors and consequences of this grounding. It is now up to the Court to shine an unfettered torch unto all the areas of mystery that seem to hover around the Wakashio wreckage.

The Court chair, assisted by a Marine Engineer and Surveyor, began hearings mid-January this year, although many seamen and observers believe it would have benefited enormously with the presence of an experienced ship captain as a co-opted assessor. There are a few of them around, patriotic Mauritians without doubt, either working on overseas cargo or passenger vessels, in retirement or acting as Ministry consultants when required. This might have quite easily weeded out some of the more fanciful narratives that have been put forward at one time or another about the captaincy of this unmistakably large cargo vessel as it headed straight for our coral reefs (looking for WiFi or internet, a birthday bash with flowing alcohol, unexplainable machinery or equipment failures, tweaking with radio or loudspeaker volumes…).

Now to many Mauritians who like me are confirmed landlubbers with an irregular love for the beautiful lagoons mostly for its shaded beaches and lagoon swimming opportunities, this investigation might hold marginal interest beyond the vague hope to find a culprit (or a scapegoat for the more cynical) and assessing damages and financial compensation for the consequential oil spill from Mitsui OK, the vessel owners. There have been reports of financial compensation but as yet no consolidated report from the authorities on the matter, partly, we assume, because that is at the core of the second term of reference of the Court of Investigation, to be supported by expert technical and environmental assessments:

ii. To determine the cause, scale and extent of the damage caused by MV Wakashio, including the oil spill in the Mauritian waters and assess the resulting damage to the marine and coastal environment and marine life;

To equal numbers who also like me gave a hand to bundle up yards of straw into oil containment booms and have them placed around the oil spill disaster site, at a time when Mauritian police forces seemed more intent to place hurdles of restricted access in the way of thousands of volunteers than helping and guiding them, there may well be residual bottled up anger at our botched and wretched marine disaster prevention and management capacities. For an island that used to proudly boast itself as “stella clavisque maris indici” (“Star and Key of the Indian Ocean”) it is a rather unflattering historical downturn.

There have been undoubted deep psychological and environmental distress on the country and its population if only by the sad sight of the wreckage stuck for weeks on our coral reefs, the inadequacies of official response, the consequential oil spill into the pristine lagoon of the south-east and its mangroves affecting marine livelihoods. In parallel, we witnessed a raised acute awareness of our insular and environmental vulnerabilities and a sense of pride in collective solidarity from all quarters. But there are also other reasons why Mauritius Inc. in its diversity should take note of the Wakashio Court proceedings.

1. The first concerns our collective ability to learn from marine mishaps and accidents, as amply demonstrated on land when major road accidents or flash floods that have cost lives induce corrective action and plans by the authorities. Adults and institutions learn more not so much from abiding by set rules and regulations, but from a full and honest debriefing that should follow every major incident or accident.
Politicians and regimes may change, but a respectable public sector management would have drawn imperious lessons from previous similar marine accidents, identified and addressed all deficient lacunae and should have prepared, not simply a rarely tested oil spill contingency plan but guidelines and procedures to avert and avoid such a situation even from arising.
We pray that following this Court case, some Agency or consulting specialists will be mandated to draft after consultations such a Master plan for the country’s future public service top managers.

2. With that in mind, the first and foremost task of the Court takes its full importance:

To investigate into, and report on, the circumstances leading to the grounding of MV Wakashio off the coast of Pointe d’Esny on 25 July 2020 and breach of hull of the said vessel, including whether in regard to the shipping casualty that occurred on 25 July 2020 involving MV Wakashio, the standard practice and procedures for the tracking and monitoring of vessels in our territorial waters have been followed

There have been too many as yet unanswered questions which could help separate the wheat from the chaff in the several narratives that have been vented both by local and international media. Some of those questions are inevitable and have to be credibly thrashed out:

– When did our authorities become aware that the large vessel was steering off course from the “innocent passage” south of our shores?

– What actions did the National Coast Guard (NCG) and its line of command, the CP and/or the National Security Adviser deem fit and appropriate to avoid an impending collision with our fragile reefs?

– Were our access to satellite and radar information systems adequate to initiate prompt action?

– Were the considerable resources (some seven vessels in the harbour, the Dornier aircraft and the helicopters based at Plaisance) under the NCG command paralyzed or awaiting instructions that never came or came too late?

The Court will have its work cut out with many such questions; it has the mandate and resources to do so. It is imperative that it delivers through its answers a much-needed balm to the nation and prevent future occurrences of such a disaster.

* Published in print edition on 6 July 2021

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