India sends technical assistance to Mauritius to deal with Wakashio disaster

India has sent technical equipment and a team of specialists to Mauritius to help local authorities deal with the environmental aftermath of the grounding, sinking and subsequent break-up of cargo ship Wakashio (IMO 9337119) off the coast of the Indian ocean island.

Following a government request for assistance, India dispatched more than 30 tonnes of technical equipment and material by aircraft to supplement the country’s salvage operations, the foreign affairs ministry has said.

Mauritius said that some of these materials were being deployed at Riviere La Chaux, Riviere des Creoles, Riviere Ferney and Grand River South East.

A 10-member team of Indian coast guard personnel trained in oil spill containment measures has also been deployed to Mauritius to provide technical and operational assistance.

Wakashio struck a coral reef a short distance south of Mauritius on July 25th, but it was 10 days before the vessel’s fuel tanks were breached. Salvage in the interim had been held back because of poor weather conditions.

About 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil was spilt, triggering what was described by the Mauritian authorities as a state of environmental emergency.

By August 14th nearly all of the oil had been cleared from the vessel, with the tanks being emptied and some 100 tons of residue outside the tanks being processed.

The carrier split in two on Saturday August 15th. On Sunday it was clear that the stern section of the vessel had been completely detached, with the remainder of the ship slowly being towed by two tugs towards high seas.

The country’s National Crisis Committee said that rough weather conditions had made the removal of the remaining oil on the ship risky.

The NCC said that there was still about 30 cubic metres of mixed types of oil in the engine room. “In view of the rough sea condition, the salvage company…has informed that it cannot carry on with the pumping of the remaining oil.”

Authorities said that they had cordoned-off Blue Bay Marine Park, with three layers of booms. “Deflection booms have been placed to further protect Ile aux Aigrettes from any oil spill. Furthermore, two kilometres of booms have been placed along the shoreline of Pointe d’Esny. Additional booms are being placed this afternoon,” the Crisis Committee said.

Professor Christian Bueger of Safe Seas Organization said that Mauritius had been well-prepared for such an incident. The subsequent problems mainly seemed to arise from an initial underestimation of the potential gravity of the case. No oil had spilled immediately after the grounding on July 25th. Nevertheles the Mauritius Coast Guard took preventive actions. The government activated its National Oil Spill Contingency Plan the next day.

By July 28th Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage had been contracted to work with leading local logistics company CELERO to keep the MV Wakashio afloat and to pump out the more than 4,000 tons of oil and diesel. The distance of Mauritius from the required vessels and materials inevitably meant there would be a delay before this began, but the first tugboat of four arrived on July 31st. The recovery operation was ready to begin, but it was at this point that, through sheer bad luck, the weather intervened. By the end of July it had deteriorated to the extent that the recovery operation had to be halted. But, since this was just a cargo ship in ballast rather than a crude oil tanker or a container ship carrying potentially hazardous chemicals, the environmental risk was still thought to be low.

It was not until August 5th, 11 days after the grounding, that things started to go seriously wrong. Observers spotted some minor oil sheen around the vessel. Within hours the Wakashio had flooded. She started sinking on the morning of August 6th and was soon resting on the reefs. One of the fuel tanks had clearly been breached, as oil started to spill into the sea at a high rate.

Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth immediately declared a “state of environment emergency”, admitting that Mauritius did not have “the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships.”

The country’s foreign minister then called upon the UN, the EU, India and France, as well other countries and organizations for emergency assistance.

Bueger noted that Mauritius was in 1990 one of the first African countries to finalize an oil spill contingency plan with support from the International Maritime Organization and the UN Environmental Programme. Between 1998 and 2003, the island state was one of the beneficiaries of the Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Planning project run by the World Bank. Through the assistance of the project, the government updated the national contingency plan. Workshops and training were conducted, and a regional agreement signed.

The Marine Highway Development and Prevention Project, running from 2007 to 2012, continued this work. Funded by the Global Environmental Facility the country received more training in oil spill prevention and reviewed the plan. After the end of this project Mauritius received training under the UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme and the Nairobi Convention.

In addition, the country is also one of the main beneficiaries of the MASE project of the European Union under which maritime security structures are developed for the region.

As part of these projects, between 2003 and 2012, the country held five larger exercises and drills on oil spill prevention. Moreover, Mauritius had plans to conduct an exercise later this year.

Only a few months before the disaster occurred, governmental officials attended a workshop on the theme. In March 2020 the UN Environmental Programme organised the workshop on ‘Cooperation in preparedness and response to marine pollution incidents’ in Zanzibar.

Officials at the workshop showed that they were very well aware that the country was at a high risk of oil spills, given that it is close to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. However, at that workshop, various problems were highlighted. The presenters emphasized that regional cooperation was not working very well, and that the country has too “limited resources in terms of funds and human capacity”.

Mauritian authorities had already had to deal with two major cases this century.

In April 2005 a collision occurred off Port Louis between 1977-built, 35,599 gt container ship MSC Katie (IMO 7434444) and MV Nordsun. The MSC Katie sustained cracks and was grounded on a reef to avoid sinking. Mauritian authorities successfully prevented an oil spill.

An incident that was very similar to the grounding of the MV Wakashio occurred in June 2016. MV Benita went aground not too far from the site of the current oil spill. While the vessel was damaged, a salvage company was quick on site. The contractors pumped the fuel out of the vessel, and only a very minor spill occurred. The salvage company towed the MV Benita to India, although it sank en route.

Bueger said that the ensuing investigations will need to look at a number of issues, including the insufficient amount of containment equipment such as booms that was immediately available.