The Mauritius Oil Spill has alerted the international community. “The implications” go beyond Mauritius itself, tells to Aufait, Dr. Scott Edwards, a research associate at SafeSeas and the University of Bristol, focusing on maritime security issues and the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project. “There were failings at each stage of this disaster”, he further adds. According to him, an investigation should occur, not as a political tool to assign blame, but to be used as a learning experience. Dr Edwards is the lead author of SafeSeas’ Blue Crimes knowledge base, and specializes in issues of coordination and inter-agency management.
Aufait: All eyes are on the Mauritius Oil Spill. Can you explain why international experts like you are very interested in what’s happening in Mauritius?
Dr. Scott Edwards: This is an extremely tragic event for the island and its population. This oil spill has caused a lot of damage to both the ecology and economy of the surrounding area. International experts are interested in what is happening because understanding how this occurred and how best to combat it is crucial. The implications, furthermore, go beyond Mauritius itself. Other states, particularly small island states, are similarly at risk of a reoccurrence of this if we do not understand how it happened and what lessons can be learned from how they responded. By looking at any questions surrounding failings or limitations in the initial response, this can then not only inform Mauritius in the future on how best to handle this issue, but also these other states. Finally, it holds lessons for external or regional bodies surrounding questions of capacity building. Mauritius has benefitted from external capacity building for this problem, but it seems to have been ineffective. By assessing why there is hope that capacity building can be made to be more effective in the future.
Aufait: You say in your latest observation of the Mauritius Oil Spill that the government has failed in handling this situation. Does it mean that this oil spill would have been prevented in any other country in the world?
Dr Scott Edwards: It is a question that is extremely difficult to address in full because oil spills are not something that occurs in a particular way every single time they do occur. A large number of factors affect how severe an oil spill will be, from the temperature of the water to location, and especially the type of fuels spilled. As a result, some more massive crude spills that occurred in other countries, such as the Sanchi off of Shanghai, were easier to respond to and less urgent.
The Mauritius oil spill was particularly problematic as it occurred close to the lagoon, in choppy waters at the time, with a low-grade heavy fuel, and in a country that seems to have had a low level of preparedness despite some indications that it was ready to tackle the issue.
We believe the Mauritian government failed in terms of how quickly the response was enacted, which allowed the disaster to escalate to what it has become now. First, could the coast guard had intercepted the ship before it struck had Mauritian maritime surveillance and awareness been better? If so, the whole crisis could have been averted. There are clear difficulties to this, including the vastness of the ocean and the number of ships that sail along this route. Still, there should have been some warning when it approached so closely to land had Mauritius developed its maritime situational awareness. Following this, the ship was stranded for two weeks – a significant window to make it safe and prepare for a spill. This did not occur. It suggests coordination between the government, the shipping company, and the salvage company was insufficient. If they had have been coordinating, then the looming disaster could have been planned for and reduced. This coordination failed when the oil spilled, furthermore. Locals and NGOs have constructed much of the booms, and there is a sense that the government has not been directing this as much as they could have done, limiting the response at this stage as well. As a result, there were failings at each stage of this disaster, where it could have been averted or at least limited. It is difficult to assess whether these failings would have occurred elsewhere, even if the oil spill had happened in the same way, but we must know why they occur so that it does not happen in another country later down the line.
Aufait: The government insists that it made decisions following advice from experts. The Prime Minister said Mauritius was not prepared for such a catastrophe. While you argue that Mauritius should have been prepared with all the multi-dollar programs, the country benefited?
Dr. Scott Edwards: Mauritius has benefitted significantly from multi-million dollar programs. The country was a core beneficiary in two multi-million-dollar World Bank projects: the US$4-million Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Plan from 1998 and 2003, and the US$24-million Western Indian Ocean Marine Highway Development and Coastal and Marine Contamination Prevention Project from 2007-2012. Mauritius receives support under the UN Nairobi Convention but also several maritime security capacity building programmes in the region.
As mentioned prior, as a result, the signs were there that Mauritius was indeed prepared. As late as March 2020, Mauritius gave an update on its preparedness at an international workshop. However, there were limitations in terms of equipment, which shows that preparedness was not at the stage it should have been. Furthermore, SafeSeas has focused on capacity building as often being experimental, focused more on planning and strategy than it is on implementation. What this disaster suggests is that there needs to be more focus on implementing and filling these gaps, rather than continuous planning exercises that cannot be executed when the time comes.
There are also questions of whether the region could have done more to help fill these gaps. Regional responses are often useful because each member can complement the other – if someone lacks something, it can be provided elsewhere and vice versa. Capability can, therefore, be pooled. There is a movement towards this, including the Regional Marine Pollution Co-ordination Centre (RCC) for Marine Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Western Indian Ocean. These need to be implemented more quickly for it to have a tangible impact sooner rather than later.
Aufait: That’s why you are asking for an independent public investigation on the Mauritius Oil Spill. What are the questions this commission should answer?
Dr Scott Edwards: Without an independent and transparent investigation, the full lessons from this event cannot be learned. We need answers to several questions to fully understand what occurred and ensure that it does not happen again. That is why we ask for such an investigation to occur – not as a political tool to assign blame, but to use this as a learning experience, so others do not face the same tragedy that many in Mauritius are (as well as the wildlife, etc.). Based on what we’ve spoken about here, we have four primary questions:
Was the country unprepared? – Looking at capacity, capacity building, coordination, equipment, planning, etc.
Could the collision have been avoided? – Looking at the capacity of the coastguard, surveillance and situational awareness in the maritime domain
Was the reaction to the grounding appropriate? – Lack of coordination again between salvage company/ship owners/government, were there other alternatives? Who chose the salvage company, and for what purpose? Could they have coordinated with volunteers to better direct the response that occurred?
Why was there no response from the region?