The freighter “Wakashio” is losing thousands of tons of oil in an ecologically valuable marine area off Mauritius. Criticism of the government is growing.
The pictures are dramatic: where paradisiacal white sand stretched under palm trees in front of the deep blue sea to the horizon, now black oily waves slosh onto the beach. The oil spill on the south-east coast of Mauritius took on increasingly dramatic proportions over the weekend. Volunteers fight the oil masses with brooms and other rudimentary tools. Local media publish instructions on how to make floating barriers against the oil spill out of sugar cane and empty plastic bottles.
Around 1,000 tons of oil had leaked from the wrecked freighter “MV Wakashio” by Sunday, which has been a few kilometers off the coast of Pont d’Esny since July 25. The Japanese ship, which was sailing under Panama’s flag of convenience, was en route from China to Brazil when it ran aground off Mauritius for reasons that are still unknown. It had 3,800 tons of heavy fuel oil and 200 tons of diesel fuel on board. The oil began to leak on August 6 after apparently a crack appeared in the hull and water leaked in.
The Japanese company Mitsui, which operates the ship, confirmed the loss of 1,000 tons of fuel so far on Sunday. The southeast wind drives the oil directly towards the coast. On Saturday the government announced that 250 tons of oil had been pumped out of the ship. However, waves up to 2.50 meters high made further work more difficult.
According to local media, the ship was about to break apart on Sunday as the oil film spread over the entire east coast of Mauritius, over a length of several tens of kilometers. Greenpeace Africa spoke of one of the “most terrible environmental disasters in the history of the small island nation”.
The south-east of Mauritius, on the side of the island facing away from the capital Port Louis, is particularly rich in species, with the country’s largest lagoons and several marine protected areas. “Thousands of species in the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahébourg are now at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution,” warns Greenpeace Africa.
The residents of the area live from tourism and fishing as well as the sugar industry in the small town of Mahébourg. All of these sectors are suffering from the corona pandemic. Although Mauritius is little directly affected with only 344 infections and 10 deaths, it is feeling the global trade and travel restrictions heavily.
The country with 1.3 million inhabitants, which was oriented towards sugar cane cultivation during the French and British colonial times, has meanwhile become a globally oriented financial and service center. Mauritius is on the shipping route between southern Africa and Southeast Asia, which is of increasing importance in world trade. 76 percent of its gross domestic product came from services in 2019. As a result of the corona pandemic, a decline of 6.8 percent is forecast this year.
Environmentalists have long criticized that the government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth and his “Militant Socialist Movement” (MSM) speaks of sustainability and green tourism, but pays little attention to environmental activists. This can also be seen in dealing with the shipwreck: the government first claimed to have everything under control and then, when the oil leaked, declared an environmental emergency and asked the population to stay away from the affected beaches.
But it did nothing – so the residents took action. On Sunday, thousands of people were out on the coast trying to contain the oil. “People have understood that they have to take matters into their own hands to protect fauna and flora,” environmental activist Ashok Subron told AFP.
George Ah Yan, leader of the “Movement of Free Citizens”, which arose in the resistance against major tourist projects, described the government’s behavior as “bizarre” in relation to the newspaper Le Mauricien. Instead of waiting for the ship owner to do something, the authorities should have pumped the oil out themselves immediately, he said.
A request for help from France also caused controversy – the island of Réunion, which belongs to France, is only a good 200 kilometers west of Mauritius, and the French navy stationed there is on the move throughout the western Indian Ocean. A French naval ship arrived in Mauritius on Sunday.
Prime Minister Jugnauth had previously asked French President Emmanuel Macron for help via Twitter, because “our country does not have the competence and expertise to rescue stranded ships”. Macron had promised support via Twitter reply. However, the media in Mauritius reported, citing the prime minister’s office, that his tweet was not officially approved.