Conflict Alerts # 149, 19 August 2020
In the news
On 25 July, a Japanese-owned Panama-flagged vessel struck a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius and developed cracks, leading to 1000 tons of oil spilling into the ocean. The spread has been increasing since then, with more than 10 square miles covered with oil. Mauritius has declared a 'state of environmental emergency' and has been undertaking cleaning operations. Experts from the UN, France, India and Japan are extending their technical expertise and deploying teams for managing the disaster.
Issues at large
First, the frequency of oil spills. Oil spills have become a frequent occurrence across the world, caused either by shipwrecks or leaks in the oil fields. In some cases, like the Brazilian oil spill of 2019, causes are unclear, thereby posing more serious challenges for disaster management mechanisms. The recent spill, off the coast of Siberia in June, is still a major concern, even as cleaning operations are underway.
Second, the negligence of disaster management in Africa. Oil spills are common in countries like Nigeria, Niger and Angola. Niger Delta is one of the most polluted places on the planet because of constant oil leaks for decades. Environmental concerns in troubled countries like Somalia due to the shipping industry and conscious dumping by other countries fail to gain enough limelight. There are negligence, apathy and lack of intent on the part of the international community to address these very serious challenges.
First, the government has been accused of not responding swiftly. Civil society organizations and environmental organizations participating in the cleaning operations opine that the authorities failed to take any action on time, that resulted in the spread of the oil to a wider area. Mauritius citizens have united for the cause and are seen participating in large numbers in the cleaning process. A similar response from the civil society was noted when oil spilt off the coast of Brazil in 2019.
Second, the impact on marine biodiversity is immense. It is threatening biodiversity hot spots- Ile aux Aigrettes reserve and Blue Bay Marine park thriving with over 40 species of coral, fish and marine mammals. It usually takes no less than a decade for an affected area to limp towards near-normalcy. The effect is also felt on the economy of the island nation. The oil spill will impact the tourism-dependent economy that is already battered due to COVID-19.
Third, Mauritius sought international help, but the Indian Ocean region has failed to respond unitedly. The Indian Ocean Rim Association has not come together as a regional organization for the cause, even though disaster management is one of the focus areas. Therefore, there is a need for a stronger cooperative mechanism and an emergency task force at the global level or at the regional level that would respond swiftly. This would ensure a better response, technical expertise and will reduce the burden on the affected country, particularly if it is a developing nation.