Mauritian Oil Disaster: Urgent Solidarity Needed

There is a need for urgent solidarity action to support those fighting an ecological and social catastrophe in Mauritius.

The basic facts of the case are plain. A Japanese owned and operated bulk cargo ship – the MV Wakashio, 300 meters in length – strayed miles off its course and ran aground on reef close to the Mauritian coast on July 25. The ship had around 3800 tons of fuel oil onboard.

As the ship was battered by waves against the reef it began to break apart and leak oil into the surrounding waters. So far around 1000 of its 4000 tons of oil has leaked. Much of this has been pushed by prevailing wind and tides onto the Mauritian coastline, coating it for many kilometres with thick oil sludge.

The position of the wreck is in the immediate vicinity of two environmental treasures – the Pointe d’esny wetlands and the Blue Bay Marine Park. Both are designated areas under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Blue Bay Marine Park is home to 108 species of coral, 233 fish species, 201 mollusc species, 31 species of algae and is also frequented by a species of turtle. It is home to a 1000-year-old coral brain that has a diameter of 6-7 meters. The 22 hectare Pointe D’Esny Wetland is the largest mangrove forest of the island. These are two of the three Ramsar sites in Mauritius.

The spill is also set to devastate local communities dependent on fishing, tourism and related industries. The impact on tourism threatens widespread economic devastation throughout the island as “eco-tourism” does not work in an oil slick. Already communities are suffering respiratory problems.

The ship was en-route from Singapore to Brazil. It had no business in Mauritian waters and should have been in the international shipping lane that passes 12 nautical miles from the Mauritian coast. It is owned by the Japanese corporation Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines – a giant Japanese monopoly with annual profits over US$10 billion.

The spill is likely the biggest environmental disaster to affect the country since colonisation. It is already too late to prevent massive environmental damage from occurring. However, the ship has not yet broken apart and most of its oil remains onboard, for now. It may break apart relatively slowly allowing more time to pump remaining oil into boats and barrels that can be removed to the mainland by helicopter.

So far 1000 tons of oil has been removed from the ship with 2000 tons remaining. However, the emergency response might be able to remove a great deal more. It may also be possible to prevent part of the volume that has already leaked from reaching the coast where it will do maximum damage. It may be possible to exclude some of the oil from the most sensitive areas, or remove this oil relatively rapidly and reduce biodiversity loss.

Huge numbers of Mauritian volunteers have formed a small army of environment defenders. Groups such as left wing political organisation Resistance and Alternative (Rezistans ek Alternativ) have mobilised people along the effected coastline and also, in supporting roles, in the island’s interior. Booms formed of fabric stuffed with sugar cane pulp have been produced en-mass to try to hold back the oil. Even human hair, which absorbs oil, has been used. See Resistance and Alternative leader Ashok Subron give a field report and denunciation of the government response here (English subtitles). Environmental organisation Eco Sud has also played a central role in this mobilisation. For details for how to make donations to Eco Sud see below.

However, without advanced equipment, expertise and resources these efforts alone can hardly stop the flow. Even basic personal protective equipment is in short supply. It is impossible for volunteers to wade into the sludge water without protective suites as the heavy fuel oil is a neurotoxin. Subron points out, the Mauritian government has no oil spill response capacity. It has called for international assistance. What is needed is an immediate and international mobilisation to assist and lead the Mauritian mobilisation and vigorously tackle the disaster on all fronts.

The resources, technical equipment and specialised knowledge for oil spill disaster management is mostly concentrated in a small number of rich countries. Japan is one of these countries. But so far – besides some press conferences in Japan that lacked concrete announcements – Japan has mobilised just six people to Mauritius (only four are experts) to assist with the disaster response. The Mitsui OSK Lines seems to have offered little to no concrete assistance.

Australia is another country that has an established oil disaster response capability. This is through the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s National Response Team (NRT). Like Mauritius, Australia is also an Indian Ocean nation, yet the Australian government – among the richest on earth – has so far offered zero assistance.

Japan Must Pay
Another basic fact of the situation is also clear. Japan is rich. Mauritius is poor. It is Japan that must pay the financial costs of the disaster not Mauritius. This is important not only as a point of principle and dignity. When Japan agrees to fully fund the emergency response it will make available the finance for a more rapid and vigorous response.

On the other hand impunity for the Japanese corporations and government only encourages companies and governments to turn a blind eye to safety and the environment – in fact impunity creates a financial incentive for them to continue cutting corners. Of course the Japanese Government has the power to force Mitsui OSK Lines to pay-up and should do so. But the immediate need is for a rapid response – and this can’t be left in the hands of the same corporation that caused the disaster (and has an interest in downplaying it).

For these reasons it is necessary for all those concerned about global justice and the environment to build up a campaign for a serious international response to the spreading catastrophe. Specifically, we need a campaign for the Japanese government to pay. To this end activists around Red Ant and friends have initiated an online petition targeting the Japanese government. 

The petition can be accessed here <<https://www.change.org/Japan-must-pay-mauritius>>. Please go to the website, sign and share the petition and think about how to promote it through your networks, contacts and among friends. The petition demands the government of Japan:

1. Immediately declare it will provide full funding and assistance to the emergency response.
2. Fully fund the long term clean up and environmental rehabilitation costs.
3. Pay compensation to all those Mauritian people who will suffer loss of livelihood, health problems and other impacts from this utterly unacceptable disaster

Flag of Convenience
While Japanese owned and operated, the MV Wakashio was flagged in Panama. This “flag of convenience” arrangement has become the standard operating procedure in the industry. The majority of the world’s ships are now flagged in a handful of low-regulation countries – it Panama and Liberia in particular. The purpose of the flag of convenience is to save money by avoiding regulations around safety, the environment.

The Maritime Union of Australia is a pains to point out that the disaster now unfolding in Mauritius – and the terrible tradgedy in Lebanon – both result from exactly this type of corporate cost cutting. They add that similar disasters could well occur in Australia which is also daily visited by flag of convenience ships – including many with cargoes of dangerous chemicals. In fact the MV Wakashio itself visited Western Australia four times this year. Before departing Singapore it visited China. Before that it was Port Headland on June 9.

Unanswered Questions

Other facts surrounding the disaster are far less clear. Many of important questions are raised in an article published by the Mauritian revolutionary organisation Lalit de Klas.

Lalit points out that Mauritius is regularly in close proximity with large oceanic shipping and that the government even aspires to develop Port Louis – the capital – as a petroleum hub. They ask why does the country not have an established spill response capacity of its own? Lalit and many others also asks why no action was taken earlier in the current disaster since the MV Wakashio ran aground two weeks ago.

Perhaps most perplexing is why a 300m modern bulk cargo carrier, equiped with all the modern navigation equipment – such as a radar – could possibly stray wildly off course and fail to detect a reef just meters from the island of Mauritius. Lalit asks if this can really be an “accident”. If it is, are we simply waiting for the next instance? Surely it is high time to rapidly phase out oil powered shipping which is a fearful danger not only to the ocean, beaches, lagoons and estuaries but also the atmosphere.

For more information and to help with the petition campaign contact red.ant.contact@gmail.com

Please make donations to Eco Sud here

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