Oil spill creates environmental crisis for Mauritius


More than 1000 tons of bunker fuel flowed into the coastal waters of Mauritius following the July 25 incident in which the Japanese bulk carrier ship, MV Wakashio, grounded on a coral reef. For the small island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa, this is a giant environmental disaster.

Four months after the disaster, oil still remains on the beaches, in the mangrove forests, and the surrounding waters. It appears that oil has entered the island’s groundwater. It will take years for fishing villages like Mahebourg to fully recover. The governments of both Mauritius and Japan are under fire for what many believe was a half-hearted approach to the disaster, and an ineffective clean up. Evacuation of oil from the vessel did not take place until Aug. 11, two weeks after the grounding.

On Aug. 24, the major portion of the ship was towed out to sea and sunk. There was no public disclosure of the location of the sinking, and no apparent regard for the possibility that toxic materials could escape from the wreck and affect the marine environment. Within three days of the sinking, 18 dolphins and whales washed up dead on Mauritius’ shores.

Last weekend, Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, was welcomed to Mauritius with a sailing regatta and music festival—even while the stern of the wrecked ship still lay on the reef. Environmentalist NGOs greeted the Japanese official with the message: “We will never forget, we will never forgive, and we demand full restoration and reparations for the physical and psychological damage caused to our island.” They are also demanding a full apology from Japan, and a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances of the oil spill.

As Japan seeks a quick and cheap $300,000 resolution to avoid further investigations, the communities in Mauritius affected by the spill have had to scramble on their own to contain the oil with makeshift booms. Many people flocked to barbershops to donate their hair to fill the booms. The lagoon now wracked by oil damage was also a bird and wildlife sanctuary that supported the local fishing communities’ existence. The fact that seafood is less available has increased the degree of poverty-induced hunger in the country.

The ecological crisis is compounded by the simultaneous COVID crisis and economic crisis. All of these factors have greatly curtailed tourism—a major industry of the island nation—and threatened the livelihood of the legions of workers who depend on it. And in the not too distant future, the people of Mauritius, like those of all island nations, will have to confront the additional effects of climate change.

Health problems caused by the spill are widespread. One study of 2314 people found that 94% reported health issues linked to the Wakashio. They include respiratory problems, skin problems, and insomnia. It is also possible that oil has entered the food chain and contaminated people’s meals.

Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), the transport company that operates the ship, is pledging to invest $9.4 million to various funds to help Mauritius with restoring the environment, while at the same time seeking to be reimbursed from the ship’s owner, Nagashiki Shipping.

Following four months of investigation, MOL is trying to pass the blame off on “human error.” Headlines around the world are blasting the “captain and crew” for allegedly navigating closer to shore to try and get a mobile phone signal. But buried in these articles is the stark reality that Mitsui OSK was cutting corners, which resulted in inadequate nautical charts, navigation systems, and risk awareness, and a lack of supervision and safety monitoring. Ineffective nautical charts did not show the depth of the water around the reefs.

The EU database, EQASIS, has identified 96 critical safety violations on the Wakashio, making it by far the riskiest ship in Nagashiki Shipping’s fleet. Poor working conditions on the ship, which might have produced fatigue in the crew, have also been flagged. The Wakashio showed a lot of rust, which raises questions about maintenance. There are also allegations of alcohol being a factor. MOL, a $12 billion company, has a history that includes a crash in 2019 by the drunk captain of the cruise ship Nippon Maru.

The fact that another environmental disaster has taken place following earlier reckless behavior by MOL highlights the urgent need for workers’ control over safety. Committees of workers assigned to inspect and investigate safety issues, with the power to shutdown operations, through strike actions if necessary, would have prevented the Wakashio from ever leaving the dock. Putting aside the deadly extractive petroleum industry for a moment, increasing profits by cutting corners is typical practice of these multi-billion-dollar companies.

The Exxon Valdez crash in 1989 saw 10.8 million gallons spill into the waters off the coast of Alaska. Similarly, the navigation systems were faulty and the crew was overworked. In 2010, the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was similarly a result of a disregard for simple safety measures. BP was responsible for the death of 11 people, and 210 million gallons of oil filled the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of ships sail the seas—a major source of pollution and a contributor to climate change. About 3 percent of global emissions are due to shipping; since the industry is growing, that number is expected to rise to 17 percent of emissions by 2050, as long as the ships continue to burn the same dirty fuel.

Inexpensive low-grade bunker oil, now used by the vast majority of ships for fuel, is extremely polluting. It is high in sulfur and gives off a large amount of particulate matter, a danger to both the environment and human health. The trend, due to more stringent environmental regulations, is to switch to diesel oil—but even that is becoming outmoded. Early results have been positive in tests on the use of hydrogen cells, which emit no greenhouse gases, to propel ships; last year, a hydrogen-powered ferry was built to carry passengers across San Francisco Bay. Sails to catch the wind may also be used to help propel ships. Due to the climate emergency, the world needs to radically step up the rate of testing and production of alternative energy sources for shipping.

Capitalism’s continued insistence on the extraction and transport for sale of harmful fossil fuels is already pushing the boundaries of the ecological capacity of Earth to sustain life. Ending the illogical use of petroleum as the motor force for the world economy through a just transition to renewable energy is the only viable solution. In the meantime, workers’ self-organization at the point of production can begin to mitigate some of the worst aspects of the triple crises of COVID, climate, and the economy.

Illustration shows a person removing a dead dolphin from a beach in Mauritius, with the wreck of the Wakashio in the background. (General Strike Graphics)

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