On 25 July 2020, a bulk carrier vessel, MW Wakashio traveling to Brazil from Singapore, ran aground on the reef of Pointe d’Esny, carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel oil.
The Mauritian government stated that the Mauritius National Coast Radar Operators tried to contact the vessel when it was first detected 11.5 nautical miles off the Mauritius coast. But the Captain didn’t answer. After the ship was grounded two hours after being contacted by the Coast Guards, the Captain got in touch with the local authorities. He stated that he had lost control of his ship. However, no distress or Mayday signals were received from the vessel at any point.
“The vessel is not sinking and will not sink”
The ship remained at sea for nearly two weeks. Photos started to circulate on social media showing the boat sinking more and more.
The Mauritian government downplayed the seriousness of the accident.
“The vessel is not sinking and will not sink,” said the Ministry of Fisheries in a press communiqué.
“There is no sign of pollution,” said the Ministry of Environment.
On 6 August 2020, the ecological disaster that many feared would indeed happen. A massive amount of oil leaked from the sinking ship.
“Due to bad weather and constant pounding over the past few days, the starboard side bunker tanker has been breached, and an amount of fuel oil has escaped into the sea,”, said Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd, Owner of the vessel.
Worst oil spill disaster
Much pressure is on the Mauritian government to explain why it didn’t take immediate action to avert this environmental disaster.
“We are talking of the worst oil spill disaster that this country has ever known. We are talking of livelihood, of people making a living with the sea. We are talking of ecosystems which are collapsing”, said Arvin Boolell, MP, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
“This boat ran aground over ten days ago with its cargo. The least we could have done is evacuate the fuel. Maybe we wouldn’t have had this disaster today.” said Ameenah Gurib Fakim, Former President of Mauritius and biodiversity scientist, to the press.
“This calamity mostly results because of incompetence and negligence. There are things that they knew at the start which were hidden to us”, said Bruno Laurette, social activist, and international security trainer in a press conference.
“It was a potential spillage at that time, and this is gross negligence by the government.” said Sunil Dowarkasing, former MP and Environmental Consultant to the press.
“There are some anger and criticism from the civil society that the government may have taken too much time to respond,” said Vikash Tatayah, MWF.
The government maintains that it acted responsibly & that the wreck was taken seriously.
“It was never expected we could have such a catastrophe”
“We don’t have a ‘hidden agenda’. We acted in full transparency”, said Sudheer Maudhoo, Minister of Fisheries in the National Assembly.
The PM, Pravind Jugnauth voiced out on BBC that such an event was never considered; “We have reviewed our protocol… but of course, it was never expected we could have such a catastrophe.” He refused to apologize, saying that he has done nothing wrong.
The grounding happened at Pointe d’Esny, a wetland Ramsar site of international importance, near the preserved marine park of Blue Bay home to mangroves, rare corals & fish species.
At least 1,000 tons of oil are thought to have leaked. It is equivalent to nearly half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
However, this tragic event showed the sense of solidarity of Mauritians. While heavily criticizing the authorities’ lack of responsiveness, thousands of volunteers united to stem the flow of the oil, despite health risks. They made booms from sugar cane leaves, straw & hair cuttings collected all over the island.
This disaster is also threatening the island’s tourism industry, which is already hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The tourism sector is one of the main pillars of the Mauritian economy, accounting for 8.1% of GDP.
“It could take ten years for the ecosystem to regenerate”, warned Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, Oceanographer.