NAIROBI, Kenya – Zareen Bandhoo was at work last week in central Mauritius city of Curepipe when she heard oil slamming from a ship in the island nation’s pristine lagoons.
In recent days, as Mauritius has faced one of the worst environmental disasters, Bandhoo has been hard at work. She has donated money and food for decontamination and has collaborated with friends and colleagues to limit the damage to the island’s picturesque coast. Together, they made makeshift barriers from fabric and sugar cane leaves to contain the oil, collected hair and plastic bottles to absorb and clean up the narrow, scrubbed contaminated beaches and raised awareness online about the extent of the damage.
“This could have been avoided,” said Bandhoo, 24, who works as a food company assistant.
She said the authorities “started doing things only when it was too late, and this is unforgivable, really.” The only consolation she could save from the crisis, she said, was how citizens have reacted so far.
“Mauritanian solidarity has been overwhelming,” she said.
Wakashio, a Japanese-owned but Panama-based bulk carrier, contained 200 tons of diesel and 3,800 tons of fuel oil – 1,000 of which leaked into the sea. Nagashiki Shipping, the company that owns the ship, said that over 460 tons had been manually recovered. But according to satellite images, the oil spill covered an area of over 10 square miles this week, which has grown by more than eight times since the ship began leaking.
The emissions could be catastrophic for Mauritius, whose lagoons, lush tropical jungles and mountains attracted 1.3 million visitors in 2019. The country has stopped the spread of coronavirus locally, but the disruption of international flights has hit its tourism-dependent economy.
The spill threatens biodiversity hotels, including the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve and Blue Bay Marine Park, a famous snorkeling and diving area where nearly 40 species of coral and over 70 species of fish thrive.
The authorities have declared an “environmental situation” and are working with experts from France, Japan, India and the UN to manage the emissions.
In interviews, many Mauritians accused the authorities of being ill-prepared for such a catastrophe, even though Mauritius has been the site of at least three shipwrecks in the past decade. In the days that followed the foundation of Wakashio, the authorities deployed only a few hundred meters of barrier, say environmental experts, which was not enough to contain emissions.
“When this leak started, there was a sense of revolt within the population,” said Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing, an environmental expert and former legislator.
Immediately after the accident, individuals, civil society organizations and environmental groups were mobilized to save the mangrove forest and coral reefs that give Mauritius water their rich biodiversity.
Thousands of volunteers pulled every night collecting plastic bottles and skimming oil in barrels, while salons donated hair and children collected straw from fields to help soak up the oil. Mauritians abroad launched social media campaigns to raise awareness and hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised on fundraising platforms.
There was “a sense of love for the country and trying to save it,” Dowarkasing said.
Mauritius is located on trade routes that connect Asian ports to Africa and Latin America. Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer on the island, said more than 2,000 large cargo ships cruised past the Mauritius area last month – threatening an ecosystem that is crucial to the nation’s resilience.
“Reefs protect us from waves, and seagrass belts and mangroves play a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide,” he said. With his roots covered in oil now, he said, “It is a tragic story that brings sorrow and anger.”
In 2016, Adam Moolna watched as the bulk carrier MV Benita went ashore on the country’s southeast coast. Although the ship did not spill oil, he said he was “pure disbelief” when the authorities could not detect or catch ships on collision courses with the island.
“Sure, a lesson should have been learned then,” said Moolna, an associate professor at Keele University in England.
The current frustrations with the government, he said, stem from concerns that the next time the island could handle a spill from an oil super anchor that transports hundreds of thousands of tons of oil instead of a ship with thousands.
The Mauritian authorities did not respond to several requests for comment this week. Nagashiki Shipping said Mauritian officials had requested compensation from the company, but had not worked out.
“We are fully aware of the liability of the parties concerned and will respond in good faith to any damages in accordance with applicable law,” the company said in a statement.
Experts say it can take weeks, if not months or more, to see the full effects of the release.
“The toxic substances accumulate in the soil and can infect insects, reptiles and plants,” said Vikash Tatayah, director of conservation for the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation. “We may see less successful breeding in birds and reptiles, more plants may die,” he added.
For some volunteers, however, the effect of the oil leak is already obvious.
Willow-River Tonkin, a 21-year-old professional kite surfer, said he came down with a throbbing headache after participating in the cleaning work.
“I spent three days inside the oil and inhaled all day,” Tonkin said. “It knocked me down.” He said he was surprised by the amount of oil that had been pushed away from the shoreline.
“You just scoop it up in your hand and you think, ‘Will it ever stop?’ Will it ever get better? ‘It never ends,’ he said.
The authorities have not estimated the financial costs of the release. But the environmental group Greenpeace said in an email that thousands of species were in danger, with likely “irreversible” environmental damage.
The leak could also affect the livelihoods of the country’s 1.3 million people, of whom tens of thousands work in the tourism industry. Tourism accounted for more than $ 1.6 billion in revenue in 2018, according to the government, but since hotels and restaurants have remained empty for months due to the pandemic, many fear the oil spill will deter visitors.
Jérémie Wan, the manager of a guesthouse in Pointe d’Esny, near where the ship landed, said he had received bookings for September, when Mauritius is expected to open its borders to international visitors.
Still, he doubted that visitors would come if they knew they would be watching a wrecked ship in front of them.
“We’re trying to reassure customers that they can come next month,” Wan said in a phone interview, “but I would not set foot in the water myself now.”
Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi and Elian Peltier from London.