Mauritius’ 322 km coastline surrounded by 243 km of lagoon is the mainstay of its pride internationally. Tourism has benefited from the pristine sandy beaches, contributing nearly a quarter of its GDP, an economic boon. But it is under the threat of climate change. Sea level rise, creeping coastal erosion, more intense cyclones and flooding are constant menace. Public and private sectors and NGOs have successfully undertaken extensive awareness campaigns to safeguard both marine and terrestrial environment.
It was therefore natural that ‘Sustainable Mauritius’, abbreviated to SUS, be used to reinforce the positive worldwide image. The exaltation was short-lived. Soon the world media highlighted the catastrophic ecological disaster of massive oil spills from the bulk carrier Wakashio, aground on the reefs at Pte d’Esny. The tangible impacts were the soiling of the coral reef habitat, a wide diversity of marine life and of the coast. The residents, fishers and those involved in marine and leisure cruise would be affected for months.
Intangible impacts include psychological stress from job loss, degraded environment, health hazard and a poor image of Mauritius. As precautionary measures, schools were closed. But little or no attention was given to other vulnerable groups including the elderly and the sick.
Mauritius has prided itself with no known cases of COVID-19. Yet the trauma of confronting another disaster made a concerned citizen speak out: “We just had one disaster and now another. What next?”
Nevertheless, we are heartened by the spirit of Mauritian solidarity, humility and compassion – a token of true patriotism. As first respondents, numerous volunteers, NGOs and stakeholders have rushed to the scene and worked round the clock to try to contain the oil spill. Social, economic and political divides have dissolved in the interest of the nation. International support in the form of experts and materials, though essential, are often late and not adapted to local conditions. It is reassuring for a nation to see its youth having so much self-confidence and take on our problems.
Over the last decade, we have experienced two other similar incidents. The cargo ship MV Angel 1 was shipwrecked on 5 August 2011 at St Géran Pass, Poudre d’Or. It was towed far away from the coast and allow to sink. On 17 June 2016, MV Benita ran aground on a coral reef at Le Bouchon. Most of the oil was siphoned off. There was little damage to the coast and marine ecosystems. The vessel was eventually towed away, and it sunk some 175 km from the coast.
The question then which most of us are asking is how we came to this. Did we judiciously apply all our experience, the technical capabilities, the policy measures, and the action plans that we built over the years? What happened to the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan aimed at reducing risk from HAZMAT (Hazardous materials) that are toxic to the human/environment systems?
Such disasters are always sudden, and they are bound to recur. What is required is an honest review of the tragic event, its impact and the investment required to mitigate the impacts. Only then will we be prepared for the next disaster. We know how to insure our risks, as we have done for nearly a century for sugar cane, and over a couple of decades for agriculture. Why not take a levy on ships plying our port to cover even partly for protection against oil spills and related disasters? Precautionary measures should be a priority in case of uncertainties.
Sadly, an outpouring of pity and a negative perception of our dream island are replacing our sustainable image worldwide. Branding of our island as sustainable (SUS) Mauritius will become a myth if the quality of life of its citizens is threatened and if lessons are not learnt. Otherwise, our decision-makers will keep launching international SOS.