There is very little doubt that an inquest is needed to shed light on the human and environmental disaster linked to the grounding of the MV Wakashio and the subsequent oil spill. The damage to the delicate marine ecosystem, the local communities and businesses making a living from the sea is likely to be felt for years to come and it is important to set up a National Commission to look at the events leading to the grounding of the vessel in Mauritian waters & its aftermath. Only then can the relevant lessons be learned and the necessary steps taken to ensure that a safety culture prevails in Mauritian navigational waters and the risk of a recurrence is as low as practically possible.
The National Commission must be able to examine the relevant facts and circumstances leading to the root causes of the MV Wakashio’s oil spill without interference or prejudice. The commission should be in a position to hold public hearings and request information, including documentation, from the various bodies linked to this environmental tragedy. These will include the MV Wakashio, the Nagashiki Shipping, SMIT Salvage, the relevant ministerial representatives, the NCG, the local coastal communities, the environmental groups, the NGOs, volunteer groups and professionals who helped in the clean-up operations. This list is not exclusive and will be expanded as the investigation progresses.
The commission should consist of a group of professionals, preferably of Mauritian origin, with experience of various fields such as the environment in the affected parts of the island, offshore engineering, maritime navigation & law, tourism, as well as people with local community knowledge and other aspects of Mauritian life impacted by the MV Wakashio tragedy.
A simple proposal for the investigation that needs to be carried out to shed light on the events leading to the grounding of the MV Wakashio and its aftermath is provided further below. This investigation will examine the safety systems, procedures and legislation currently in place in Mauritius relating to cargo vessels or ships of any size carrying toxic substances and other large vessel movement in and around the island. The investigation will examine the chronology of events from the moment the MV Wakashio left its port of origin in Singapore until the contingency operation to deal with the oil spill was deemed to be over. The action plan set in motion once the Mauritian authorities & the vessel owner were informed of the grounding and a salvage unit was contacted to relocate the stranded vessel will undergo forensic examination including the initial risk assessments made.
As events unfolded and the vessel structural failure became more pronounced, the effect on the offshore procedures set up by the key players will be examined. At this stage, the international call for help by the Mauritian government was answered by a number of neighbouring countries. This action may have prevented a more serious catastrophe but will need to be situated within the original action plan put in place. The additional offshore resources and their contributions will need to be recorded and listed. Similarly the resources, including the volunteers from across the island, dedicated to cleaning up of the oil spill in the lagoon and onshore have to be acknowledged. The NCG, the coastal communities & businesses affected by the oil spill will all be asked for their contributions.
An estimate of the economic impact of the oil spill on the local fishing communities, the small businesses eking out a living from tourism & the hotels will also be looked at. It is understood that compensation claims will be processed by a body such as the ITOPF which sent representatives to Mauritius. These claims can be reinforced through the public hearings that will be taking place.
Finally the lessons learned based on the investigation can be recommended to the relevant authorities to ensure that a safety culture prevails when it comes to navigation inside Mauritian territorial waters. Recommendations to allow better preparedness in dealing with any future oil spill will also be made.
The initial proposal for the main sections to be looked at by the Commission can be broken down as follows:
1. Maritime rules and guidelines – this will examine the existing international maritime guidelines that large vessels or those carrying hazardous contents have to abide by before approaching the Mauritian EEZ or territorial waters. There should be an examination of the marine traffic in and around Mauritius, the procedures put in place by the relevant authorities to ensure compliance with all maritime guidelines. Previous incidents like MV Benita & Angel One need to be revisited.
2. Chronology of events starting from MV Wakashio’s port of origin until its fateful encounter with the coral reefs off Pointe D’Esny. This section should examine whether the MV Wakashio’s transit course conformed to international maritime guidelines. This will look at the behaviour of the vessel crew and its captain and what tracking system (e.g. AIS) was installed. The response of the Mauritian coastal authorities to the presence of the MV Wakashio transiting through Mauritian waters until it was too late must be addressed. The procedures put in place to contact vessels that stray from dedicated shipping channels & maintain radio silence should be examined. Where necessary any existing inquiry will be used & supplemented.
3. Immediate aftermath of vessel grounding. What notifications were sent by the Wakashio and to whom? What communication channel was opened with Nagashiki Shipping? How were initial structural assessment and vessel stability checks carried out? How was information regarding weather (waves & current), bathymetry and vessel data circulated? What action plan was set up by the local authorities? This will show whether a proper plan was put in place and how decisions were made as the grounded vessel changed its configuration under the action of waves. The initial risk assessment made and the conclusions reached must be examined.
4. Salvage operation and the evolution of offshore activities. It appears that the Mauritian authorities relied heavily on the advice provided by the salvage team. This advice and associated risk assessment, the offshore procedures along with the technical justifications must be examined. The contingency scenarios and recommendations made will be important in order to understand the behaviour seen offshore during the salvage of the MV Wakashio especially after the vessel split into two. The action plan put in place by the local authorities to protect the shoreline and the fragile marine ecosystem in the path of the impending oil spill will be examined here to understand whether the public perception of inactivity was right.
5. Oil spill and the associated environmental damage. This section should look at the reasons why the oil spill happened and why there had been little preparation made to mitigate against it. The weather forecast used could have been more optimistic than it was and risk assessments may not have been reliable. The lack of adequate equipment on site to deal with the oil spill is another factor. How prepared were the Mauritian authorities to deal with an oil spill? Was there a functioning command centre to co-ordinate the response to the vessel grounding, the logistics involved, the ensuing clean-up operation and the offshore operations related to the wreck? How did the plan change once structural damage became more pronounced? This section of the investigation will also deal with the clean-up operations and the decisions made that led to this point.
6. Reaction of local authorities and communities and the effect on the marine ecosystem. This will cover the response of the army of volunteers who came forward to protect the fragile coastal region. Public hearings will report on the local communities and businesses affected by the oil spill. These hearings could provide the basis for future compensation claims for some groups. It is understood that ITOPF will provide support on compensation and the commission will reinforce any such activity. The disposal of the split sections of the Wakashio must also be examined.
7. Lessons learned to guard against future such incident. Recommendations will be made to implement a safety culture that will reduce the risk of future vessel grounding and the endangering of the Mauritian marine environment. The level of preparedness to deal with an oil spill also needs to be raised to meet existing international guidelines whether it is through better equipment or organisation. This section will be based on the observations made during the course of this investigation.
Once the team is assembled, the work of the national commission should take between 6-12 months and a series of milestones can be agreed so interim conclusions can be communicated before the final report. A fully independent commission must be trusted to deliver its work so that the turquoise Mauritian waters on tourist brochures do not have to change colour.