‘This Is Unforgivable’: Anger Mounts Over Mauritius Oil Spill

NAIROBI, Kenya — Zareen Bandhoo was at work last week in the central Mauritius town of Curepipe when she heard that oil was spilling from a ship into the island nation’s pristine lagoons.

In the days since, as Mauritius has confronted one of its worst environmental disasters, Ms. Bandhoo has been hard at work. She has donated money and food for cleanup operations, and has teamed with friends and colleagues to help limit the damage to the island’s picturesque coast. Together, they made makeshift booms from fabric and sugar cane leaves to contain the oil, collected hair and plastic bottles to absorb and clean up the slick, scrubbed contaminated beaches, and raised awareness online about the extent of the damage.

Their efforts are representative of the grass-roots initiatives undertaken by Mauritians amid mounting anger and frustration that officials did not act soon enough to address the spill — even though the Japanese-owned bulk carrier ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island on July 25.

“This could have been avoided,” said Ms. Bandhoo, 24, who works as an assistant in a food supply business.

She said that the authorities “started doing things only when it was too late, and this is unforgivable, truly.” The only comfort she could salvage from the crisis, she said, was how citizens have reacted so far.

“The solidarity of Mauritians has been overwhelming,” she said.

The Wakashio, a Japanese-owned but Panama-flagged bulk carrier, held 200 tons of diesel and 3,800 tons of fuel oil ­— 1,000 of which leaked into the sea. Nagashiki Shipping, the company that owns the vessel, said that over 460 tons had been manually recovered. But according to satellite imagery, the oil spill covered an area of over 10 square miles this week, growing by more than eight times since the ship began to leak.

The spill could be disastrous for Mauritius, whose lagoons, lush tropical jungles and mountains attracted 1.3 millions visitors in 2019. The country has quelled the spread of the coronavirus locally, but the suspension of international flights has battered its tourism-dependent economy.

The spill is threatening biodiversity hot spots, including the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve and Blue Bay Marine Park, a renowned snorkeling and diving area where nearly 40 types of coral and over 70 species of fish thrive.

The authorities have declared a “state of environmental emergency” and are working with experts from France, Japan, India and the United Nations to deal with the spill.

In interviews, many Mauritians blamed the authorities as being ill-prepared for such a catastrophe, although Mauritius has been the site of at least three shipwrecks in the past decade. In the days that followed the grounding of the Wakashio, the authorities deployed only a few hundred meters of booms, environmental experts said, which was not enough to contain the spill.

“When this leakage started there was a sense of revolt within the population,” said Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing, an environmental expert and a former lawmaker.

Immediately after the accident, individuals, civil society organizations and environmental groups mobilized to save the mangrove forest and coral reefs that give Mauritian waters their rich biodiversity.

Thousands of volunteers pulled all-nighters gathering plastic bottles and skimming oil into barrels, while salons donated hair and children collected straw from fields to help soak up the oil. Mauritians abroad began social media campaigns to raise awareness, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected on fund-raising platforms.

There was “a sense of love for the country and trying to save it,” Mr. Dowarkasing said.

Mauritius sits in the path of trading routes that link Asian ports to Africa and Latin America. Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer on the island, said that over 2,000 large cargo vessels cruised past the Mauritius area last month — threatening an ecosystem that is vital to the nation’s resilience.

“The reefs protect us from waves, and the sea grass belts and the mangrove play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide,” he said. With their roots covered in oil now, he said, “It’s a tragic story, which brings sorrow and anger.”

In 2016, Adam Moolna watched as the bulk carrier MV Benita ran aground on the country’s southeastern coast. Although the ship did not spill oil, he said he was in “sheer disbelief” at how the authorities were unable to effectively detect or intercept ships on collision courses with the island.

“Surely, a lesson should have been learned from then,” said Mr. Moolna, an environmental lecturer at Keele University in England.

The current frustrations with the government, he said, stem from worries that next time the island could be dealing with a spill from an oil supertanker carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of oil instead of a vessel with thousands.

The Mauritian authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week. Nagashiki Shipping said that Mauritian officials had requested compensation from the company, but did not elaborate.

“We are fully aware of the responsibilities of the parties concerned and will respond in good faith to any damages in accordance with applicable law,” the company said in a statement.

Experts say it may take weeks, if not months or more, to see the full effects of the spill.

“The toxic substances accumulate in the soil and can infect insects, reptiles and plants,” said Vikash Tatayah, the conservation director of the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation. “We might see less successful breeding in birds and reptiles, more plants may die,” he added.

For some volunteers, however, the impact of the oil leak is already evident.

Willow-River Tonkin, a 21-year-old professional kite surfer, said he came down with throbbing headaches after participating in cleaning efforts.

“I spent three days inside the oil, breathing it in all day,” Mr. Tonkin said. “It knocked me down.” He said he was staggered by the amount of oil that had been shoveled off the shoreline.

“You just scoop it up in your hand, and you think, ‘Will this ever end? Will this ever get better?’ It never stops,” he said.

The authorities have not estimated the financial cost of the spill. But the environmental group Greenpeace said in an emailed statement that thousands of species were at risk, with likely “irreversible” damage to the environment.

The leak could also affect the livelihoods of the nation’s 1.3 million people, tens of thousands of whom work in the tourism industry. Tourism accounted for over $1.6 billion in revenues in 2018, according to the government, but as hotels and restaurants have remained empty for months because of the pandemic, many fear the oil spill will discourage visitors.

Jérémie Wan, the manager of a guesthouse at Pointe d’Esny, near where the ship ran aground, said he had received bookings for September, when Mauritius is expected to reopen its borders to international visitors.

Yet he doubted visitors would come if they knew they would be looking at a wrecked ship in front of them.

“We are trying to reassure clients that they can come next month,” Mr. Wan said in a phone interview, “but I wouldn’t put a foot into the water myself now.”

Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi, and Elian Peltier from London.

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