On 15 August 2020 we heard the news of the break into two pieces of the Wakashio, a Panamanian cargo ship carrying 4.200 tons of oil, which stranded on 25 July at Point d’Esny (Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean. The content of the ship consisted in low-sulphur fuels, diesel and lubricating oils: all these substances poured into the sea as a result of a gash in the hull of the ship.
This is only the latest in a series of accidents related to the trade and transport of fuels used for human activities. This makes us reflect on the environmental destruction resulting from the human impact, in particular on the importance of disclosing researches of biologists, climatologists and other experts in the natural sciences related to the load capacity of our ecosystem.
Before investigating the environmental consequences of the accident and making political considerations, it is of fundamental importance to understand the time coordinates along which the story evolved.
Thanks to an interview with a local volunteer, we tried to reconstruct the events and draw up a timeline which lists step by step the main events, the actors involved and the results obtained in order to limit the spread of crude oil along the Mauritian coasts.
To reconstruct the events, we also consulted online newspapers, Facebook groups and Instagram profiles which followed the events live, acting as real channels of mobilisation and coordination of Mauritian volunteers. This allowed us to obtain grater coverage of the events and to report the facts from primary and credible sources.
South-East of Mauritius, the sea is rough due to an anticyclone, with waves 3-4 metres high. Weather conditions will remain negative until 5-6 August.
Along the China-Brazil route, Wakashio collides with the Mauritian coral reef. The result is a gash in the hull that will be detected only on 5 August. However, on 25 July, none of the substances transported come out.
The ship, built in 2007, has a crew of 20 people and belongs to the Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd. The company will wait until 8 August before publishing news in this regard on its website.
Kavi Ramano and Sudhir Mudhoo, respectively Minister of the Environment and Minister of Fisheries of Mauritius, assure the population that there is no danger of fuel spill into the sea.
Lars Tesmar (consultant at Brand MARINE CONSULTANTS) is brought on Wakashio together with a group of five experts in order to carry out analyses and surveys on the condition of the ship.
The tugboat Stanford Hawk, from the State of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (island of the Lesser Antilles archipelago) is already on the spot.
After having determined the absence of fuel leaks into the sea, the Mauritian government formally asks the nearby Réunion (overseas department and region of France) for help. The goal is to obtain the sending of tugboats, because the small insular country is not equipped for such eventualities. Other help requests are sent from Africa, India and Singapore.
It is estimated that the VB Cartier Reunion Island tugboat coming from Réunion will arrive the same afternoon, while the arrival of the African HS Expedition Africa Tug Ship will be expected for 10 August.
An investigation into the Mauritian Coast Guard is also launched to inquire the reason for the non-communication of the presence of Wakashio in Mauritian territorial waters.
The Ministry of Fishering carries out the process of "ascent" to balance the ship and keep it "stable" on the coral reefs.
The Mauritian Coast Guard notices the presence of the gash in the ship, from which apparently for the moment there is no leak.
In the morning the inevitable occurs: oil begins to leak out of the crack in the fuel tank, on the starboard side of the engine room of the ship. The first effects are visible on rocks and lagoon of Pointe d'Esny, and some fish are found dead.
In the afternoon, the oil has already reached the promenade of Mahébourg e la Rivière-des-Créoles. The draught pushes the huge oil strip towards the oriental region of Mauritius, creating a blanket in which many endangered species of lizards, turtles, reptiles and plants remain trapped. The area involved is the stretch of coast from Rivière-des-Créoles to Pointe d’Esny, passing through the Île aux Aigrettes reserve.
It is believed that, as a fishing village, Mahébourg will particularly suffer from this environmental tragedy. The Blue Bay region (south of Pointe d'Esny) hosts a marine park with many fish and coral species and is more than five metres wide. Blue Bay is also famous for educational tours, which introduce children and tourists to the natural heritage of Mauritius. Many online videos released these days reveal mangrove (plants that are essential for preventing soil erosion and absorbing the CO2 present in the air) completely immersed in oil.
Local ONGs, in particular Eco-South, decide to clean up the coastline of Pointe d'Esny. Françoise Gachet from Eco-South makes and appeal to hairdressers and internet users on Facebook groups, proposing to Mauritians to use hair as absorbent material to be inserted inside floating cords created by volunteers. These should have acted like sponges, absorbing the oil floating on the water surface and thus containing the stain. The same method was used in 1978 by the French to contain the oil released following the shipwreck of the Amoco Cadiz, a super tanker carrying 200.000 tons of oil.
Schools in the affected area are closed because of the intense smell of oil that has reached the bank. In the morning, the inhabitants notice the further widening of the oil. Under the supervision of Eco-South and Resistans ek Alternativ, already involved in the cleaning operations, many locals have started to clean up the coasts by collecting oil with rudimentary instruments and depositing it in barrels.
A special bank account to raise funds both at national and international level is created in order to provide support to the affected population Prime minister Pravind Jugnaut declares a state of environmental emergency: during a press conference announces that he has contacted international experts and that he is waiting for equipment to cope with the situation.
Around a thousand tons of oil have leaked from the ship and poured into the sea. Many volunteers arrive at the affected sites to help together with the Coast guard. On the Nagashiki Shipping website, a notice on the "issue of the stranding of our ship and the presence of oil spill" is published: inside, the company briefly explains the events of 6 August and formally apologises for the inconvenience caused to the local population and all the people involved. The company undertakes to cooperate in the removal of the oil and the wreckage and in the conduct of investigations.
Due to bad weather conditions, the removal of the oil trough hydraulic pumps is supended: the waves surrounding Wakashio are too high. Volunteers keep arriving in the affected regions. Those who are equipped with protective devices help in the collection into the water, while the others take care of the creation of the absorbent cords. These containment systems are nothing but fabrics inside which hair, plastic or dry sugar cane leaves are inserted.
It is Sunday evening. The already few roads connecting Mahébourg and the other cities are jammed.
Thanks to better weather conditions, the removal operations resume, and oil is collected and conveyed into tugboats. During the day, around 510 tons of oil are removed from the ship, while other 1959 tons remain inside. Meanwhile, volunteers keep arriving on the coast: Eco-South records now about 5000 people.
The Aventure du Sucre, a museum/factory related to the cultivation and treatment of sugar cane, opens its doors to the volunteers to build the floating cords with dry sugar cane leafs.
Around 1100 tons of oil have already been removed from the ship, while 800 tons are still inside. The data are unclear: the official report of Nagashiki Shipping talks about nearly 1.020 tons, stating that the cracks in the hull of the ship have expanded. The risk is that the ship will break into two pieces and the hull will drift. To prevent this from happening, the Japanese company monitors the evolution of the case e connects the hull to a tugboat.
Nagashiki Shipping claims to be aware of the responsibilities "of the interested parties" (referring to itself) and, after informing that the Mauritian government has submitted a claim for compensation, states its intention to respond in accordance with "the applicable law". The company continues communicating the almost complete removal of the fuel present in the ship tank, successfully happened on 12 August.
An emergency response team sent by the company is on the spot with special equipment like skimmers, pumps and absorbents to contrast the oil spill. They also consider the recruitment of additional staff.
14:00 (Mauritian time): the Wakashio beaks into two pieces.
Nagashiki Shipping confirms the breakdown of the ship. The crack at hold No.8 has expanded and turned into a real rupture. The two part will be retrieved: the front parte of the hull will be picked up as agreed with the authorities, while discussions on the retrieval of the back part of the hull are underway.
The environmental consequences are already evident: the thousands of species of protected areas such as the Pointe d’Esny Wetland, the l’Île aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve, the Blue Bay Marine Area e the Mahébourg Fishing Reserve are at risk. There areas are real enclaves of life, sanctuaries of endemic flora and fauna. In 1965, the small Île aux Aigrettes was converted into a natural reserve. Twenty years later, with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation programme for Mauritian flora and fauna recovery, it started to host endangered animals and plants, including birds such as the pink pigeon, the Mauritius fody, the Mauritius olive white-eye, and small reptiles such as the Round Island day gecko. The Blue Bay Marine Area was declared a national park only in 1997. In 2008, with the Ramsar Convention, it was designated an area of national importance. It is used for educational purposes and to promote awarness campaigns for the protection of biodiversity.
If we retrace all the events, we can immediately notice that for twelve days (25/07-05/08) the wreckage remained at sea, without any intervention for removing the oil from the tanks. An analysis of the public reaction on social media shows a strong criticism of the work of the Mauritian government. Citizens wondered the reason for the delay in taking measures to remove the wreckage. The Prime Minister declared that the Government was not provided with the adequate equipment to face the emergency, as well as with experts in the field. He therefore had to make appeals to the neighbouring states, welcomed by France and Africa.
The first step taken from the Mauritian government was the request for aid to the neighbouring Réunion, overseas region of France. As soon as the request was received, president Macron immediately intervened, saying: «When biodiversity is in danger, there is an urgent need to act. You can count on our support», stating his willingness to provide support to save the biodiversity of the area. Indeed, on Saturday 8 August, France has already sent on the spot a military aircraft with a task force of equipped experts. Moreover, it has sent the Champlain (a ship belonging to the fleet of its Navy) with the tugboat VB Cartier Reunion Island Tug ship.
For sure, the proximity of Réunion was providential in the management of the emergency and in the sending of aids. France has all the resources to help a territory close to its overseas region, besides having had a similar experience in 1978 with the shipwreck of the Amoco Cadiz. The Wakashio incident occurred in Mauritius, but it could have happened in the nearby Réunion. When biodiversity is at risk, solidarity breaches the boarders of nations.
The second question is the reason for the delay of the African aids. If we look at the current state of affairs, we can assume that in this moment Africa is engaged in fighting the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be the reason for the delay in sending equipment and aids.
The Wakashio case shows the resilience of Mauritians and their capacity to mobilise their population for a greater good. The environmental consequences will be visible for a long time. However, in addition to being remembered as a environmental disaster, it will also be remembered as an example of solidarity and respect for nature. The Mauritian volunteers, armed with suits and masks, went firsthand to the affected places to help, firstly with rudimentary instruments and then equipped to save their beloved island.
Sources consulted for this article:
The author interviewed a Mauritian who took part in the cords creation operation as a volunteer.
Picture taken by Toshan Ramsurn a Mahébourg.
Facebook pages: Wakashio - Oil Spill - Anou Mobilisez available at https://www.facebook.com/groups/682627752330288/?ref=share
Instagram profiles: indie.marea; mauritius_explored; mauritiusuncovered; savemauritiusreef
Translated by Roberta Sforza