Mauritius Oil Spill: How the Government Lost the People
On August 6, nearly two weeks after the Japanese ship MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, more than a thousand tonnes of oil leaked into the Indian Ocean. The Mauritian government declared a state of environmental emergency and, acknowledging that they did not have enough resources or expertise, requested foreign assistance to clean the spill.
Civilian volunteers turned out in huge numbers to help, some even making containment booms from human hair to absorb the oil. While the government announced that they had removed almost all of the oil from the bulk carrier shortly after it started spilling, frustration over the government’s lack of prevention remained. This reached a breaking point when a total of thirty nine dolphin and whale corpses washed ashore on Mauritius. Although the deaths had not been linked to the oil spill, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, expressing their frustration over the government’s ineptitude.
The oil spill is considered by many to be a major turning point for Mauritius, creating political pressure and scrutiny for better environmental regulations.
Hard-Hit: What The Oil Spill Means For Mauritius
Oil spills cause significant environmental damage. Indeed, sometimes the extent of the damage is only evident years or decades later. According to the Office of Response and Restoration, oil is particularly costly to marine life, sticking to animals’ coats and preventing proper insulation, leading, in many cases, to hypothermia. Even if scientists can successfully clean the animals, the damage can often be irreparable. In previous occurrences, cleaned birds experienced higher mortality rates and reduced breeding abilities.
There is a reason why the Mauritius case is particularly devastating. While the volume of spilt oil was relatively small, the spill occurred near two protected marine ecosystems and one area of international interest, inciting fears that endangered and sensitive species will be detrimentally affected by the incident.
Of particular concern is further coral bleaching and the effect of the oil on mangrove trees in Mauritius. Coral reefs are important for maintaining marine ecosystems and mangrove forests that prevent floods. The loss of coral reefs will also impact the survival of fish in the area and will hamper marine biodiversity.
For Mauritians, the ocean does not just carry aesthetic and environmental significance, it is also a major source of income. The livelihoods of local fishermen have already been negatively impacted because of the toxicity of the oil. The island nation also relies on tourism for its national income, so the loss of aesthetic value to its beaches is especially detrimental to the nation’s economy, especially considering the ongoing impacts of COVID-19.
Why Has The Government Angered Mauritians?
Many protesters argued that the government should have been better prepared. The Mauritian government is a beneficiary of various United Nations and World Bank projects aimed at training to prevent and clean up marine pollution. Mauritius is an important target as the nation’s location is considered a ‘highway’ for international shipping. Even more so, the nation has had close calls before and has succeeded in preventing spills.
All of these suggest that the Mauritian government should have had the foresight to deal with the cargo ship in the twelve days before it started leaking. A day before the leak, the Minister of Fisheries even claimed the risk of an oil spill was low. In retort, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth stated that bad weather inhibited any government response, but the people remain unsatisfied.
The lack of government transparency also stoked public frustration. Policy decisions and clean up procedures were not entirely revealed, feeding into public concerns that the government might not be doing enough to minimise environmental damages. Many organisations, including Greenpeace, have called for independent investigations into such operations.
Mauritius has suffered a major hit in national morale and the government’s popularity has spiralled. The best way to retain the nation’s confidence in their government would be to have a third party conduct independent investigations and for findings and updates to be shared directly with the public.
This will only be the beginning. The impacts on marine wildlife should also be closely monitored, with more targeted government support for conservation projects. The government should also provide concrete and pragmatic policy solutions to handle the economic fallout and reassure its citizens that economic recovery is possible.
For a nation whose identity is intertwined with the condition of its coasts, an oil spill endangers not just the environment but also the lifeblood and the morale of the people. To maintain the support of civilians is to ensure something like this will never happen again.
Jennifer Chance is a freelance writer studying Economics and Politics & International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has a passion for journalism within the context of human rights and international affairs.