Two years after historic oil spill, Mauritian youth continue to grapple with the consequences

A small white boat rests buoyed on clear, blue-green waters under a cloudy blue sky with a gentle mountain in the distance.

The shores of Pointe d'Esny, Mauritus, as seen from Île aux Aigrettes, one of the most prominent reserves in the Indian Ocean, on July 21, 2022. Almost two years prior, this water was blackened by an oil spill from the MV Wakashio. (Zoey England/University of Connecticut)

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Earlier this month, I found myself standing on the shores of Île aux Aigrettes, one of the most prominent nature reserves in the Indian Ocean. I was astounded by the crystal blue waters, so clear you could see the reefs several meters out from the shore. The air was crisp, with a slight floral scent, marked by the distant sounds of birds chirping within the forested portion of the island. Boats bobbed out in the harbor, many of them fishing vessels that had returned to bring their catch to market earlier in the morning. 

To an untrained eye, it would be difficult to discern that this was the site of Mauritius’s greatest oil spill disaster just two years previous; however, still lurking beneath the water’s surface are remnants of one of the most complicated environmental disasters ever faced by Mauritius –– especially for the nation’s young people.

The 2020 Oil Spill

During the evening hours of July 25, 2020, Japanese-owned bulk carrier MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef just off the southern shore of Mauritius. In addition to the reef, near the lodged ship were also several other protected environmental areas, including Blue Bay Marine Park, Pointe d’Esny mangroves, and the Île aux Aigrettes. According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Mauritian marine environment is home to an estimated 1,700 unique species, including around 800 kinds of fish, 17 types of marine mammals, and two species of turtles. Île aux Aigrettes is home to some of the rarest species on Earth, including the pink pigeon, Mauritius fody, and Bojer’s skink –– many of which were in direct threat because of the oil spill.

At the time of the oil spill, the vessel, flying a Panamanian flag, was sailing to Brazil from China. While the Wakashio did not have any cargo on board, officials reported it was carrying 3,984 tons of a new low-sulfur fuel oil, 207 tons of diesel, and an additional 90 tons of lubricant oil. The vessel had veered an estimated 55 nautical miles off standard shipping lanes at the time of the grounding. The captain would later cite an attempt to access cell phone reception, coupled with distractions related to a birthday party taking place onboard, as reasons for the significant course deviation.

Rough seas and a slow response from governmental stakeholders quickly turned what might have been a minor accident into a massive environmental and economic disaster. The lack of precedent marine oil spills of the low-sulfur “Frankenstein Fuel,” which behaves differently than standard fuel when suspended in water, further hindered initial response efforts. Salvage teams arrived and began to work to mitigate effects of the grounding on July 26, but they were quickly removed after monitoring officials detected several cracks on the ship’s hull. Before their evacuation, response teams pumped a portion of the fuel off of the vessel, but the ship continued to split. On August 6, cracks in the tanks became large enough that the fuel oil started to ooze unabated into the marine ecosystem –– creating large clouds acting as a visible indicator to the public of the situation’s gravity. 

On August 7, 13 days after the grounding of the Wakashio, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency, stating the nation did not have “the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships.” As the government waited for foreign assistance, conservation groups around Mauritius sprung into action in an attempt to contain the oil spill. Volunteers dashed to collect materials and construct containment booms themselves, stuffing a skeleton of cloth and buoyant plastic bottles with human hair to help absorb the oil. Sugarcane farmers on the island also donated around 8 tons of bagasse, fibrous remains of the harvesting process, for use as an alternative filler for the booms.

“We were Googling things, learning how to contain the spill on our own. You didn’t see any guidance from the government or other organizations,” Gwenael Monasie, now 22 years old and studying business management, noted. “We were just doing our best and hoping that was enough.” As a volunteer at the spill site, he harnessed his personal network to get more volunteers and worked to sew and fill the handmade booms.

MV Wakashio split into two distinct pieces on August 15, estimated by responders to be holding around 90 tons of fuel at the time. Since the ship’s initial leaks a week earlier, around 1,000 tons of the Franken-fuel was spilled into the reefs and surrounding marine ecosystem.

Several days later, the Mauritian government sunk the remaining forward section of the vessel 13 nautical miles offshore in an area known to be a whale nursing and breeding ground. Despite officials assuring this would have no effect on the ecosystem, an estimated 39 dolphins and whales beached between the hull completing sinking on August 24 and the publishing of a non-governmental report on August 28. 

Protecting “Mama Nature”

This July marks two years since the MV Wakashio oil spill. Though environmental NGOs have left the island and news coverage of the disaster has ceased, youth around Mauritius are still reeling from the effects of the tragedy.

“Many of us view nature as very sacred,” Fatimah Dowlut, a recent graduate of a small private Mauritian university told me. “We often call our environment Mama Nature –– Mother Nature –– in Creole. We are quite close to nature, so there was a feeling of proudness, being able to contribute [to the clean up efforts].” She continued, “I still feel quite proud of my country and of the people around me because this was like one of those rare situations where everyone was together in a way, but I also fear about the long-term damage to the sea. We absolutely love our sea and the blue water and the clean, crystal water as well. So the thought of fishes dying, of the Marine ecosystem being destroyed, that hurts.” 

Starting in primary school, Mauritian students are taught the importance of the country’s coral reefs and how to promote their protection. Multiple Mauritians I spoke with recounted local NGO educators visiting their classes, showing them artifacts related to reef conservation and facilitating hands-on activities to illustrate their roles in protecting the environment. Because protection of the natural world is stressed so much in Mauritian culture, many were surprised by the governmental inaction in responding to the oil spill and the lack of local media coverage early on.

Thekishta Beerachee, 23, said, “When the spill happened, I realized the gravity of the situation when international media started posting about it –– talking negatively about how the island has not been able to solve the situation quickly and had a delayed reaction that could have prevented the oil spill… Same with the celebrities I follow on Instagram that [were talking] about it.”

“It was a situation where you don’t believe it is happening to you or your country because it was so bad,” she explained. “People from all social backgrounds immediately started looking for solutions, working together to help prevent the oil from spreading throughout the lagoon. It was quite emotional –– something happens in your country and suddenly everyone was involved trying to help out.”

Even after official cleanup concluded, the physical effects of the oil spill were still present. “I went to a beach in the South in February 2021 and you could still spot the oil traces on the water,” Ramma Elysia, a first-year student at the University of Mauritius, told me. “You cannot swim in that water. You cannot fish. All of the sea creatures were toxic… There was no way to undergo business, creating a major disadvantage for a nation that relies on beaches for so many parts of our lives.”

On the other side of the island, Thekishta didn’t know anyone who worked as a fisherman in the South, the region still feeling the most severe impacts of the oil spill. For her and her friends in the North, the impacts were less tangible, though Thekishta noted that the spill made her more engaged politically, especially around environmental issues. “Becoming a young adult, I feel like there are things that should be prioritized that are not,” she said.

Mauritian Youth Dive In  

The Wakashio oil spill was also a catalyst to action for Gwenael, who has been active within environmental activism groups across the island since he was in grade school. “[Taking care of the environment] is our responsibility,” he said. “I knew that I couldn’t sit home and watch others working to protect it –– I had to be out there helping.” 

“A lot of us leave the country and get educated elsewhere, and then come back to implement projects here,” Gwenael explained. “We chat a lot about things that impact the island –– climate change being one of them. [Even after the spill], there’s virtually no action by the government outside of cleaner energy… It’s frustrating for all of us.” 

Globally, these are feelings many youth can relate to. In fact, a recent Lancet study of 10,000 people in ten countries between ages 16 to 20  found more than 65% of participants thought government inaction to climate change related issues is “failing young people,” with 60% feeling governments are “dismissing peoples’ distress” around such issues. The same survey indicated a meager 33% percent of participants felt the government was “protecting me, my future, the planet, and future generations” and 31% felt the government was “doing enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Gweneal points to these feelings as one reason why many young people aren’t staying in Mauritius. “I don’t think older people don’t care,” he said. “It’s just as young people, we think it’s our responsibility to do our best to have a future here. This means protecting the environment as best as we can. Hopefully, the government will soon help.” 

Fortunately, these apprehensions haven’t stopped Mauritian youth from gathering together to continue pushing for environmental change and celebrating their accomplishments. “Very rarely will you see situations where all Mauritians have the same goal –– of protecting our country,” Fatimah mentioned. “​​The productiveness of the Mauritian people was beyond that of the government. And because there were so many people –– they were super active, they had the support of many private companies, so they started getting resources. Only then, the government started to catch up a little bit.” She explained that many people her age feel responsible to keep this momentum for change going, pushing the government to enact legislation necessary to better protect the myriad of ecosystems around Mauritius in addition to the creatures within them.

“We are very proud of what we’ve done,” Gweneal echoed.  “If you are a friend I text every day or even if we’ve just met, we’re all trying together to help protect our shores… It’s already a disaster. We shouldn’t make it worse [through division].” 

Gwenael has been able to keep in contact with many of the people he met volunteering at the shore and is hopeful they can get together once again as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted further in Mauritius.  He also mentioned wanting to try to connect all of the oil spill volunteers –– estimated to be several thousand of individuals — via social media groups to keep everyone informed for future projects and ready to respond to an environmental catastrophe if the need arises again on the island. 

“As a 20-year-old, I wasn’t really thinking that way. Now, as I’m 22 and a little bit more mature, I don’t think we need to wait until the next disaster to bring such a team together.”

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Government, Mauritius, oil, youth, youth climate movement

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