The tourism-reliant nation, known for its pristine beaches, unique wildlife and coral reefs, has become mired in a grossly polluting oil spill after a 300-metre-long ship – one of the 1% of largest vessels ever built – ran aground off the Indian Ocean island. The government’s slow response to the environmental catastrophe has fired up the population as never before. In August, roughly one in 10 Mauritians marched through the capital, Port Louis, to voice their anger. Le Mauricien, a national newspaper, declared: ‘We are at a turning point in the history of our country.’
The disaster began on 25 July, when the MV Wakashio, a Panamanian-registered, Japanese-owned bulk carrier with about 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel onboard, ran aground on a coral reef off Pointe d’Esny. It seems not to have been a mechanical problem: the ship had passed its annual inspection, the Japanese maritime regulator said. Forbes said satellite evidence showed the ship had been sailing in a straight line for 1,200 miles, on a direct collision course with the island, and hit the reef at ocean-cruising speed. It reportedly took six days for the authorities to even send out a tugboat to try to refloat the ship. The crew was evacuated as the hull began to crack in heavy seas but the Mauritian prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, only declared the situation a national emergency on 7 August. By this time, 1,000 tonnes of fuel were estimated to have leaked from the vessel, polluting reefs, wetlands and beaches. Jugnauth warned islanders to prepare for ‘a worst-case scenario’ as the ship broke up.
On 18 August, the captain, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, a 58-year-old Indian national, was arrested and charged with endangering safe navigation. Crew told police there had been a birthday party onboard the day it ran aground. Another theory, the BBC reported, was that the ship steered close to shore to find a WiFi signal. On 15 August the ship split in two and nine days later the front was towed away and scuttled in waters known to be a nursery for whales (where a survey recorded more than 1,200 sightings of 17 species). Forbes asked whether this amounted to an international crime because of the potential damage from the release of oil, invasive species in ballast water, industrial cargo residue, anti-fouling chemicals etc) and explored who might be responsible and which court would have jurisdiction.
The amount of oil leaked might appear insignificant compared with the worst maritime incidents; a collision off Tobago in 1979 led to 287 times as much oil leaking as from the Wakashio, while the 1991 Gulf war saw 1.5m tonnes discharged into the sea. But the Wakashio disaster threatens Mauritius’s already vulnerable endemic species (as well as the dodo, 60 others are already extinct and 55 endangered), two protected reefs, and wetlands of international importance – the Blue Bay and Pointe d’Esny reserves. Mauritius has some 1,700 species, including 786 types of fish, 17 different marine mammals and two turtle species. Sunil Mokshananda, an environmentalist near the spill site, said: ‘The wind and the water currents are not helping, they are taking the oil towards the areas that have vital marine ecosystems.’ Happy Khambule, of Greenpeace Africa, said ‘thousands’ of species were ‘at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health’. By late August, 39 dead dolphins and three whales had washed ashore. Sudheer Maudhoo, the fishing minister, admitted: ‘This is the first time we are faced with a catastrophe of this kind, and we are insufficiently equipped to handle this problem.’ Ignoring official orders, local people rushed to help, scooping sludge off beaches and improvising booms from sugar-cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair. Barbers offered free cuts to collect hair (a kilo can absorb eight litres of oil). The clean-up took its toll: three sailors died and one went missing after a collision in rough seas.
Environmental groups criticised Japan over its wary response. ‘The Japanese government seems to be on the defensive, perhaps due to fears of damages claims,’ said Kanna Mitsuta, of Friends of the Earth Japan. By contrast, France, the island’s colonial ruler before Britain, responded quickly. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: ‘When biodiversity is in danger, there is an urgent need to act. France is there. Alongside the Mauritian people.’ India, which also has historical ties, flew in 30 tonnes of specialised equipment, including oil-absorbent pads and power packs, with coastguards trained in containing spills. Stung by the criticism, Tokyo eventually offered support on an ‘unprecedented scale’. The foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, said Japan would help set up a navigation safety system for Mauritius, supply fishing gear and promote its trade and tourism, as well as provide financial support. Jugnauth told Motegi Japan was not responsible. Mounting anger at the Mauritian government’s own slow response to the crisis – and apparent attempts to suppress dissent – could be seen as 100,000 people demonstrated on 29 August. The Independent quoted one protester declaring: ‘We’ve seen the Arab spring, now we have a Mauritian spring!’ Police prevented journalists from attending a press conference of the opposition leader, Arvind Boolell. One organiser of the march, Bruneau Laurette, a social activist, alleged that a minister had tried to intimidate him (though this was denied). This unresponsive, autocratic behaviour may stem from the dynastic nature of Mauritius’s government. Kasenally Roukaya, of the University of Mauritius, noted that Jugnauth’s father was the previous prime minister and all but one of PM since independence came from two families: the Ramgoolams, who lead the Mauritius Labour Party, or the Jugnauths, at the head of the Militant Socialist Movement. The concentration of power over successive regimes encourages cronyism, she said. In 2017, the commentator Nita Chicooree-Mercier wrote: ‘In a typical feudal tradition, leaders end up believing that the people are their subjects and the country their private property.’
As always with environmental disasters, the impact will be felt most acutely by Mauritius’s most vulnerable communities. Writing in the Conversation, Prof Rosabelle Boswell, of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University, pointed out that people exposed to oil can face liver, lung, reproductive and skin disorders, higher cancer risk and post-traumatic stress. Among the Mauritians most affected, she said, were the marginalised Creole communities descended from African and Malagasy slaves. Their villages were among the island’s poorest with some 4,000 families reliant on artisanal fishing, and faced greater difficulties in claiming damages. Jugnauth has promised to set up a commission to investigate the spill, but the problem was all too apparent to Greenpeace’s Khambule, and lay in ‘our twisted addiction to fossil fuels’. He said: ‘There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport and store fossil fuel products … We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels.’ For Nishan Degnarain, writing in Forbes, the Wakashio disaster revealed how the global shipping industry had evaded regulation by registering vessels in lightly regulated ‘flag states’ – many of them Commonwealth members, such as Malta, Singapore and the Bahamas. What began as an ‘apparently innocent navigation accident’ had become ‘the embodiment of all that is wrong with global shipping’.