Preventing oil spills in the Western Indian Ocean after the Mauritian tragedy | WWF

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Preventing oil spills in the Western Indian Ocean after the Mauritian tragedy

The southeastern coast of Mauritius is currently experiencing the worst oil spill ever recorded in the Western Indian Ocean region, following the grounding of the "MV Wakashio" on 25th July. The country is in a state of environmental emergency.

This incident is part of a series of marine accidents in our region, including a phosphate spill in southern Madagascar in August 2009 and a mass stranding of dolphins in 2008 following an underwater seismic survey by Exxon Mobil in northwestern Madagascar. Clearly, Western Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar, are not safe from these accidents.
There's no big or small oil spill. Compared to other similar disasters such as the grounding of the "Katina P" which spilled 16,000 tons of oil off the coast of Mozambique in 1992, the 1,200 tons spilled by the "MV Wakashio" from the reefs off Pointe d'Esny appear to be lesser. However, the Mauritian oil spill is severely affecting the surrounding coastal areas which include lagoon and reef ecosystems, but also mangroves, estuaries, seagrass beds and beaches. The entire region contains several parks, nature reserves and a Ramsar site known for its coral diversity. Although the oil remaining in the boat has been pumped out, experts have estimated that the oil already spilled will alter these ecosystems for years and even decades to come. The costs of cleaning up the ecosystems could amount to more than USD 50 millions for Mauritius, but the long-term recovery would cost much more. The impacts of this spill on the marine environment, human health, tourism and livelihoods are very serious.

This avoidable disaster highlights the crucial importance of the blue economy in keeping the areas of food security and employment afloat, among others, especially at a time when the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have already cost Mauritius about 10% of its GDP. The region is important for tourism, which is the third pillar of the Mauritian economy (24.3% of GDP), while small-scale fishery, which sustains local communities, is also heavily impacted.

In order to ensure that such disasters are avoided and well managed in the future, it is recommended:
  • To ensure adequate funding for the Organ for the Control of Pollution Events (OLEP), attached to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Madagascar. The contributions that countries have to pay for OLEP to work properly are not honoured. However, it is the sub-regional coordinating body in the fight against maritime pollution.
  • To lighten the procedure between the Indian Ocean countries so that regional intervention against oil spills can be faster. Indeed, the Regional Operations Coordination Centre (CRCO), which main function is to coordinate marine joint actions, is based in the Seychelles. This body must first go through the Malagasy Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that materials such as sorbents can be sent by OLEP from its storage centers in Madagascar.
  • To update marine pollution response equipments, as the current equipments are more than a decade old. It should be noted that sorbents are single-use, and user countries, in the event of a spill, must rapidly replace the used equipment, according to the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPCF) Convention.
  • To establish a binding regional spatial planning agreement for the use of the Western Indian Ocean marine space. It is important to base such an agreement on scientifically reliable data, including a marine atlas to support all policy and governance decisions related to the management of coastal and ocean space. The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), based in Madagascar (as well as its national branch), is already fully operational, and is responsible for exchanging and sharing maritime information and alerting the CRCO in Seychelles of any abnormal marine activity. What is now needed is the appropriate political will for these bodies to work effectively and share the information they collect in a transparent manner. This should finally lead to a more open collaboration with other types of actors (partners, civil society, other governments even outside the region, etc.).