Mauritius struggles to comprise large oil spill from broken ship; unhealthy climate forward to worsen ecological impression

Clean-up crews, volunteers are scrambling to contain the ecological disaster, with further damage to the ship expected due to bad weather.

A grounded ship off the coast of Mauritius is said to be leaking tonnes of crude oil into the island’s clear waters. Clean-up crews and volunteers have been scrambling to contain the ecological disaster by cordoning the oil from spreading towards the island, without success.

The MV Wakashio ship’s hull struck a coral reef off the island on 25 July, and it has been aground ever since, but only began leaking oil over the past few days, BBC reported. The ship has roughly 4,000 tonnes of oil, of which at least 1,000 tonnes is thought to have seeped into the Indian Ocean waters near Mauritius.

Attempts to stabilise the vessel and pump out the 3,000 tonnes or so of remaining fuel from its hold have failed. Local authorities has also warned that rough seas could further rupture the tanker.

The site of the leak is at Pointe d’Esny, a region of Mauritius home to a wealth of sanctuaries for rare and endemic wildlife, and a marine park with pristine protected coral reefs, mangrove forests and endangered species, the report said.

Experts have warned that the unprecedented damage caused to the fragile coastal ecosystem of Mauritius will likely also impact its economy. Mauritius and its residents depend primarily on its seas for food and tourism. Mauritius has maintained its reputation as a conservation success, and one of the top global destinations for nature lovers. The spill threatens to permanently destroy the already fragile marine ecosystem at the heart of global ecotourism.

Mauritius struggles to contain massive oil spill from damaged ship bad weather ahead to worsen ecological impact

As per this 9 August photo, oil is still leaking out of the MV Wakashio after running aground on a coral reef. Image credit: French Defense Ministry/AP

Local volunteers are aiding in containment effort by fashioning absorbent barriers made of straw stuffed into fabric sacks that could contain and absorb the oil, against instructions from local authorities. These desperate attempts have failed so far, with the dense sludge spreading to the thriving lagoons, aquatic habitats and white-sand beaches in the archipelago.

The nation’s Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared the spill an “environmental emergency” and call for international help to help contain the damage. Jugnauth thanked France for sending a naval vessel, military aircraft and technical experts from the nearby French island of Reunion, to assist with the disaster.

The Mauritian PM is also said to have convened a crisis committee meeting to plan for the forecast of bad weather, which could further complicate efforts to stem the spill from any further structural damage to the vessel. Ecologists have warned that if the ship breaks, the potential damage to the coastline – and the island nation’s economy – could be catastrophic.

The MV Wakashio is owned by Nagashiki Shipping Company, and operated by Japanese transport company Mitsui OSK Lines. Mitsui said it had tried to place its own containment booms around the vessel but had not been successful owing to rough seas. Mitsui could come under heavy fire for its role in the accident, according to Nikkei Asian Review.

Mauritius struggles to contain massive oil spill from damaged ship bad weather ahead to worsen ecological impact

Oil polluting the foreshore on the eastern side of Mauritius, after it leaked from the MV Wakashio. Image credit: Sunil Dowarkasing via AP

The company, which operates an 800-vessel fleet, said it wanted to respond appropriately, given the massive, growing, impact the spill will have in the local environment.

“We don’t know the full extent of the harm yet, so we don’t know what such payments would even look like,” Kiyoaki Nagashiki, President of Nagashiki Shipping Company told Asian Review.

“We apologize profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused,” Akihiko Ono, executive vice president at Mitsui said in a news conference, according to the report.

An expert has said that the payment for damages will likely be made by the ship’s owner, the Nagashiki Shipping Company, and capped somewhere between 2 and 7 billion yen (1.4 to 5 billion INR) for a ship the size of Wakashio.

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