A freighter ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, polluting the waters with oil that leaked out of the ship. Both the owner and operator of the ship are Japanese corporations.
While workers had trouble responding to the situation due to inclement weather, the vessel’s hull cracked in two, causing around 1,200 metric tons of oil to leak. With assistance from France, the United Nations, and other bodies, oil drifting on the surface of the sea was removed, and work to recover fuel that remained inside the ship was completed.
What’s worrisome is the impact of the incident on the environment. There is concern over the impact that the spill could have on some of the world’s greatest coral reefs. Heavy oil washed up on an approximately 10-kilometer stretch of beach.
Mauritius’ mangrove forests have also suffered damage.
A wide range of organisms live at the roots of trees that grow out of the water. These wetlands are protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat.
Using pumps to suck up oil and removing it with high-pressure washers can damage complex mangrove root systems. We also must be cautious in determining the effects on the ecosystem of using chemicals to break down oil.
The Mauritius government has declared an environmental state of emergency. It is the first time the country has experienced an incident of this nature and magnitude, and it has yet to understand the full scope of the damage, but Mauritius is short on supplies, labor and expertise. It must undertake moves toward restoration to its original state with the cooperation of various countries. But the coronavirus pandemic is making that difficult.
As a coronavirus countermeasure, Mauritius has set up strict entry restrictions on people from other countries. That has made it extremely difficult to accept assistance and volunteers from overseas. Japan has only been able to dispatch two emergency relief teams totaling 13 people to Mauritius.
The oil spill combined with the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to Mauritius’ key industry, tourism. And some estimate that it will take decades for the ecosystem to recover. Prolonged economic damage cannot be avoided.
The owner of the freighter has indicated that it will comply with compensation claims, but there is a maximum limit to compensation liability based on treaties and other rules, making it unclear whether the owner will be able to fulfill compensation demands in their entirety.
For a country with few natural resources like Japan, maritime transport — which allows the country to procure resources from abroad — is a lifeline. As a party with interests in this incident, the Japanese government should fulfill its responsibility.
In 1997, Japan experienced an oil spill from Russian tanker Nakhodka in the Sea of Japan. To keep environmental pollution at a minimum, we must provide a wide range of assistance to Mauritius, including technology and knowledge.