How The Oil Spill In Mauritius Exposes The World’s Unpreparedness For Climate Change


After a massive oil spill off the coast of Mauritius in early August 2020 and the subsequent mysterious deaths of 39 dolphins in coastal waters, citizens in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis are protesting the government’s handling of the situation, according to BBC. It is the largest protest the island nation has seen in 40 years with an estimated 75,000 people demonstrating. Protesters believe that the Mauritian government could have done more to prevent the oil spill, and there is controversy surrounding the government’s decision to intentionally sink part of the ship that caused the spill after the ship was split in two. Mauritians residing in London, Paris, and Perth have also held protests.

In early August of 2020, a wrecked Japanese-owned vessel carrying at least 4,000 tons of fuel began breaking up off of the southeastern coast of Mauritius, spilling oil into the nation’s coastal waters. It is estimated that more than 1,000 tons of oil have leaked from the vessel. According to CNN, the vessel ran aground on a coral reef at Pointe d’Esny in late July but did not begin leaking oil until the first weeks of August. The wreckage site is very close to the Blue Bay Marine Park reserve, which is an important wetland and an environmentally protected ecosystem. More than 70 species of fish and 40 types of coral thrive in the Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve. The spill also threatens the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve. On 7 August, Mauritian prime minister Pravind Jugnauth declared that the country was in a state of environmental emergency. Greenpeace Africa senior climate and energy campaign manager Happy Khambule said in a statement that “thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security, and health.”

Additionally, in late August 2020 at least 39 dolphins were found dead in the area surrounding the oil spill and cleanup efforts. So far, autopsies have been done on two of the dolphins by the government-run Albion Fisheries Research Center and have found that the dolphins had sustained injuries but had no trace of oil in their bodies. The autopsy results for 25 other dolphins are expected in the coming days. Local Mauritian environmental group Eco-Sud said in a statement that representatives from civil society should be present for the autopsies and that independent specialists should give a second opinion, according to Reuters. Furthermore, late on 31 August, two crew members from a tugboat helping clean up the oil spill were killed when their vessel collided with a barge in bad weather. Mahend Gungapersad, a member of the Mauritian parliament for the opposition Labour Party, told Reuters that “this incident is going to add to the prevailing anger. We had the oil spill, then we had the deaths of the dolphins and now two people who have been killed.”

In addition to all of these factors, Mauritius is a small island nation that largely depends on tourism for its economic prosperity. The island attracted 1.3 million visitors in 2019 alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mauritius has managed to curb its own local outbreak of the virus, but restrictions on international travel have already severely impacted the country’s tourism reliant economy. With the oil spill affecting popular tourist beaches and dive and snorkel sites, the already burdened economy of Mauritius is likely to suffer even more because of this environmental disaster.

Given all of these events, it is easy to see why the Mauritian people are frustrated and have been moved to peacefully protest. According to BBC, many protesters have worn shirts that read “I love my country. I’m ashamed of my government.” Zareen Bandhoo, a Mauritian citizen who has volunteered to help with oil cleanup operations, said in an interview with the New York Times that the government “started doing things only when it was too late, and this is unforgivable, truly.”

The situation in Mauritius highlights a fact that will only become more apparent with time: environmental disasters and climate change affect and intersect with all other areas of society. This oil spill has not only threatened the biological and ecological wellbeing of Mauritius but its economic and social wellbeing as well. It has put a strain on the island nation’s tourism-based market, gravely endangered the local wildlife on which the ecosystem depends, and even taken two human lives. Lastly, the oil spill has exposed the fact that the Mauritian government was and continues to be completely unprepared for an environmentally destructive event of this caliber to a degree that has prompted its citizens to publicly demonstrate their anger. Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing, an environmental expert and former lawmaker, told the New York Times that “when this leakage started there was a sense of revolt within the population.”

The government of Mauritius is not alone in its unpreparedness to deal with environmental catastrophes. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that concluded that the world is not adequately prepared to tackle the challenges climate change is going to bring in the near future, warning that “impacts from recent extreme climatic events, such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, and wildfires, demonstrate significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to climate variability.”

While the oil spill off of Mauritius is not an event caused by climate change, the impact on the biodiversity and ecological health of the surrounding ecosystem has the potential to exacerbate problems related to climate change that the region already experiences. In the United States, the Trump administration has rolled back at least 100 environmental regulations, including rules and restrictions regarding air pollution and emissions, drilling and extraction, water pollution, and toxic substances and safety. In 2019, Europe found that it is heating faster than the global average, and data revealed that last year was its warmest year on record. Even countries like Costa Rica or Morocco, who have adopted stronger policies to curb their emissions, will still experience the harmful effects of climate change within their borders if the rest of the world fails to rise to the challenge.

The fact of the matter is that curbing climate change and avoiding global environmental catastrophe must be a team effort, and it must be immediate. Policymakers in most countries are not acting with the level of urgency that dealing with the climate crisis must require. If only a few countries decide to adopt progressive climate policies, that will not matter if the world’s largest climate change contributors like the U.S., China, and Saudi Arabia do not aggressively work to restrict their own environmental impact. Additionally, in situations like that of the oil spill in Mauritius, other nations should step up and pool their resources to help control the situation. France has sent pollution control equipment to Mauritius and Japan has sent a team to assist the French efforts. International organizations like the UN or EU should also aid in any way that they are able. Mauritius is a small nation that should not be left to deal with this disaster alone, especially since the damaging of fragile ecosystems in the region could potentially impact other ecosystems around the globe. Environmental disasters and climate events will continue to happen in the coming decades, and if governments continually fail to implement aggressive environmental policies, they will eventually have to answer to their citizens the same way the government of Mauritius is answering to their people today.

Tess Gellert

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