The Japanese bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio which ran aground off the coast of Mauritius on 25 July 2020 is now split into two, raising the risk of a second oil spill from the remaining heavy fuel oil on board.
While the full impact of the spill is still unfolding, the locals, who have been the leading actors in containing the spillage from the beginning, are angry and worried at the seeming indifference and lack of transparency by the Mauritian administration.
Mahébourg, the coastal village in Mauritius near to the disaster is home to DIRAJ-member, environmental expert and founder of Nature Yetu, Fabiola Monty. We asked her about the oil spill and how it could affect her community and country.
“My best memories of Mahébourg are all linked to being at the shore,” she says. For 18 years now, the Mahébourg waterfront has been a key place for regular meetings with her friends. “That’s where we chilled and calmed down as we awaited our O-level and A-level results, where we planned and assessed our volunteer works, where we shared our fears and hope for the future, ” she adds.
The area is one of Mauritius’ main fishing villages and an important tourism site known for its majestic landscapes. “That unique view at the waterfront. The feeling there is that it is the perfect place to see the bigger picture in life and put things and small concerns into perspective,” Fabiola said.
But the oil spill now adds to the challenges of climate change and ecological degradation that have earlier bedevilled the area.
What are the immediate concerns following the oil spill?
Marine and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves and the species that they support are at risk.
This serious external shock is not coming to a pristine area (there are few of these left in the world) as it has been ‘romanticized’ in some articles. Those that live or work in the area or are familiar with the lagoon know that coral bleaching is an important and persistent challenge.
So, these are already vulnerable, yet important (ecologically and socio-economically) ecosystems that are affected and their ability to recover and the time it will take is not known except that we can expect it to be long term. That recovery process will also not occur in a bubble, away from other stressors like climate change and land use impacts.
Mahebourg is one of the worst areas in Mauritius for this to happen. There is a high dependence on the lagoon and marine resources for livelihoods and complementary sources of food. The lockdown in Mauritius due to COVID-19, that lasted from March to June has already affected fishermen, boat skippers and diving operators among others. They have not had stable sources of income since March and now they have to face this.
Long-term solutions are needed to address current and future socio-ecological impacts, but these cannot be devised in exclusive meetings. The local community and residents in the areas and their concerns including health risks need to be heard. Their local knowledge and experiences are invaluable and essential for good decision-making and identification of effective measures that will indeed protect the community’s health, the livelihoods as well as the unique culture in that area.
How long are the effects of the oil spill likely to be felt?
I don’t think anyone can really come up with a reliable estimate on the amount of time it will take to get back to normal if that is even a possibility; it would require proper monitoring and collection of data.
It is important that any statement on the exact number of years it will take or about our lagoon being in the clear (now that most of the oil in the bulk carrier has been removed), are taken with a grain of salt. We need proper, standardised and consistent monitoring of the air and water quality, of marine and coastal biodiversity and human health issues to really start understanding the extent and potential longevity of the adverse effects caused by the oil spill. One thing we can be certain of, based on documentation from other oil spills, these will not be short-term effects.
Are there any lessons from past oil spills that can be applied in managing this case?
Scientific studies on the impacts of past oil spills highlight that residents and those involved in clean-up face great health risks. Little is also known on long-term health impacts due to a lack of studies that span several years. The important take-away here is to act early to effectively inform residents and those involved in clean up on the health risks. When faced with uncertainties regarding the long-term impacts, efforts need to be put in place to reduce the extent and duration of exposure for residents living near severely affected areas and effective sanitary protocols need to be in place and effectively and timely communicated to residents.