Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Catastrophic Oil Spill in Mauritius Is A Worldwide Problem


Cleome Barber was born in South Bend, Indiana to a Mauritian mother and British father and has lived here in the U.S., in Mauritius, France, and England. A recent graduate of Columbia University, she's currently living in New York City working for the Color of Music Collective, an organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals working in the music industry. Because she's the only person I know from Mauritius and because Climate Change is one of the issues that motivates her, I asked her to share her perspective on the catastrophic Mauritian oil spill.

What An Unprecedented Environmental Disaster On One Small Island Can Teach Us About The Immediate Necessity Of Ecological Preservation
by Cleome Barber

On July 25th, the Japanese bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio plowed directly into the coral reef that surrounds the tropical African island of Mauritius. After 13 days, the vessel’s hull slowly split open and its fuel tanks began to leak into the country’s world-famous lagoons, setting off an extremely dangerous ecological disaster. This tragedy, which threatens not only the fragile Mauritian ecosystem but also the country’s economy, was entirely preventable. As the Trump administration finalizes its plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the situation in Mauritius is more pertinent than ever. What can we learn about the importance of ecological preservation from its mishandling?

Mauritius: from Dodo bird extinction to oil spill eco-disaster

After growing up with a Mauritian mother and calling the small country my home from 2009-2010, I’ve learned first-hand what a special place it is. Mauritius is an independent nation off the south-eastern coast of Africa (think Madagascar, but much smaller at only 35 miles long, and about 700 miles farther into the middle of the Indian Ocean). It’s a volcanic island with spectacular mountains, masses of sugar cane fields, and stunning white sand beaches. One of its most impressive features is the coral reef which surrounds the island. The reef acts as an important ecosystem for small fish and other organisms while also creating a blockade against large waves and predators like sharks. As a result of this barrier, the water in the lagoons between the reef and beaches is perfectly still and crystal clear, making the island a dream vacation destination.

The island’s geography is only one of the many incredible characteristics of this small nation. With no indigenous human population, Mauritius has a long and involved history of colonization. After its initial discovery by Portuguese sailors in 1507, the Dutch established a series of settlements on the island as a stopover for ships to help break up their long ocean voyages. In 1715, France took control of the island, establishing important ports and agricultural infrastructure. In 1810, the sugar plantation island was ceded to the United Kingdom until 1968, when the long-time colony finally gained its independence and became the Republic of Mauritius. The Dutch, French, and British all relied on the labor of slaves to build their successful colony. With the abolition of slavery under the British in 1835, former slaveowners were compensated for their loss while former slaves were left destitute and required to fulfill a mandatory period of labor for their previous enslavers as a condition of emancipation. It was during this time that the British developed their indenture system using workers from India in the sugar industry, and leaving the former enslaved Africans little recourse but to move to the coast where they subsisted on fishing. It is their descendants, still settled at the shore, who are most directly affected by the oil spill, which is endangering their health, and making their livelihood extremely precarious. Due to this complicated history of colonization and enslavement, the modern population of Mauritius, which sits around 1.3 million, is remarkably diverse. The majority of Mauritians today are of Indian, French, English, African or Chinese descent, and most (like my mother) are at least trilingual, speaking Mauritian Creole, French, and English.

Like the human population, the flora and fauna of Mauritius is incredibly diverse, owing to the island’s unique volcanic origins and pre-colonial isolation. Many of the plant and animal species that inhabit Mauritius are endemic, meaning that they exist only on the main island and its islets. As humans colonized the land and brought new alien species with them, over 100 Mauritian species became extinct and many more are still endangered today. Perhaps the most famous of these now extinct endemic species is the Dodo bird which was killed off by Dutch settlers and their ship rats by the end of the 1600s. Today, groups like the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation have been actively working to protect endangered species like the Mauritian Fody and Pink Pigeon to ensure the Dodo’s tragic end isn’t repeated. Collaboratively with similar organizations, they’ve successfully established many important nature reserves and conservation sites throughout the island. When the Wakashio plunged into the Mauritian reef, these protected species and their ecosystems faced the immediate threat of extinction, undoing decades of impressive work from conservation organizations like the MWF.

The Wakashio crash: a lesson in accountability and stepping up for the environment

At present, the question on everyone’s mind is: how the hell did this happen? Owned by the Japanese Nagashiki Shipping Co and licensed in Panama, MV Wakashio was traveling along a common shipping route to South America. According to satellite imaging, Wakashio was predicted to collide with Mauritius several days in advance. However, there were no attempts made by either the sailors or Mauritian officials to shift the boat’s trajectory. Even as Wakashio approached the island, the vessel made no effort to slow down or change direction. Nagashiki Shipping Co has since accepted responsibility for the catastrophe and issued a formal apology, yet the full extent of aid they are extending to mitigate the travesty is unclear.

After its unprecedented collision, the carrier sat on the reef with fuel tanks still intact for 13 days before 1,000+ tons of oil spilled out through the cracked hull and into the lagoon. Only one mile away, the Ile Aux Aigrettes islet, a crucial Mauritian Wildlife Foundation conservation site, was put in immediate danger. During those 13 days before the leak, Mauritian authorities stalled, missing the opportunity to initiate an operation that would preemptively remove oil from the ship’s tanks prior to its disintegration. When oil began to spill, the MWF acted quickly to remove hundreds of plants and animals from Ile Aux Aigrettes to nurseries until a solution is found. 10 days later, the remaining 3,000 tons of fuel were successfully extracted, and on August 16th, the vessel split fully in half. The next task at hand will be for authorities to tow the larger half out to sea where it can sink, while the smaller half will remain lodged in the reef.

With intervention from both the Nagashiki Shipping Company and the Mauritian government  woefully nonexistent, Mauritian residents took matters into their own hands. France was the only country to answer the call for help, but it was left to Mauritians to spearhead, organize and implement an ingenious ad-hoc eco rescue mission. Using social media, thousands of volunteers from across the island quickly mobilized to contain the oil spill. Mauritians collected fabric, sugar cane straw left over from the recent harvest, and plastic bottles to construct long booms that prevent oil from spreading on the water’s surface. To advance efforts and compensate for a lack of external foreign aid, Mauritians even trimmed their own hair to provide extra padding for the makeshift booms. Despite the many health risks, Mauritian citizens moved to the frontlines and fought for their environment and livelihoods where authorities had faltered.

While the efforts of resident volunteers have been essential for dealing with immediate clean-up, questions of long-term effects on Mauritian life are moving into focus. After the current situation is controlled and oil is contained, there will be many prolonged environmental implications. For instance, the affected coastline and neighboring beaches will be polluted for years to come. This means that not only fish, birds, and coral are in danger, but the health of fishermen, swimmers, and those reliant on the tourism industry is also jeopardized. The damage done to the reef itself also has significant long-term implications. Coral reefs provide many crucial services like regulating water temperature, sea levels, and ocean acidification. Already fragile because of the effects of climate change, this crash has aggravated the reef’s ecosystem to the extent that it is unlikely to ever recover.

I am endlessly proud of the Mauritian people who united and mobilized immediately to save their environment. However, this incident serves as a bleak reminder of the negligence that leads to so many preventable environmental disasters. As global warming persists and human-fueled climate change continues to cause so many ecological catastrophes around the world, who will be burdened with the task of cleaning up the mess?

Moving forward, there are several immediate issues we must address in order to prevent the mishandling of environmental crises like this one:
We need to urge the acceleration of a transition to electric shipping fleets. This ensures that in the event of another vessel crash, there is no fuel on board to create another dangerous oil spill.
We need to elect officials who understand the impending threat of climate change and will support funding research into new technologies that reverse its effects and mitigate damage caused by incidents like this.
Immediately, we must also pressure Congress to reverse Alaskan drilling plans. Placing protected wildlife at risk for the excavation of oil is never worth it.
Additional actions for those looking to support Mauritian clean-up efforts:
Donate to Eco-Sud, an environmental NGO in the affected Blue Bay-Mahébourg area assisting with all disaster-related expenses
Donate to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to support their conservation efforts (mention “Wakashio” in the message to ensure funds are directed to this disaster)
Contact the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation if you can offer professional expertise for immediate clean-up efforts and solutions that will alleviate long-term effects of this disaster

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At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One way or another, fossil fuel firms will kill all of us if they are not stopped.


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