On 25 July 2020, the bulk carrier MV Wakashio, en route from Japan to Brazil, ran aground on a reef at Pointe d’Esny on the south-eastern coast of Mauritius. Although not carrying any cargo, the vessel was transporting more than 4100 tonnes of oil which, after the collision with the reef, began leaking into the ocean. The significance of the leak was compounded by the ecological sensitivity of the area that includes the Blue Bay Marine Park, Ile aux Aigrettes, and the Ramsar sites – internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots. On 15 August, following adverse weather conditions and turbulent seas, the bulk carrier broke into two, triggering one of the biggest ecological disasters ever faced in the Indian Ocean.
During the month of July, over 2000 vessels traversed waters off the Mauritian coast, one of the most concentrated shipping lanes in the world connecting Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Vessels have a tendency to navigate in close proximity of the coastline, likely to maintain reasonable distance from specialised help in case of emergency. Whilst this is common practice, it remains unclear why the MV Wakashio was so close to the Mauritian reef, one of the main points of investigation for the coming months.
Although the cause of the grounding is yet to be determined, satellite imagery tracking the movements of the vessel during the days leading up to impact demonstrate a deviation from the typical route of traffic by the island. Strikingly, the data reveals that the MV Wakashio was on a collision course with Mauritius for at least 12 hours. The same evidence suggests it took six days for the government of Mauritius to merely send out a tug-boat to refloat the ship. This information is a powerful illustration of the ways in which earth observation satellites can bring radical transparency and accountability to activities on the ocean. However at the same time, this raises questions as to how a modernised vessel, noting the instruments available to the Mauritian Coast Guards, was able to travel on a unnoticed direct collision course with the reef for such a lengthy period of time. Especially in a country that has prioritised the Blue Economy as a pillar of its economic development strategy, with an objective to double the contribution of the Blue Economy to GDP by 2025.
Perhaps most worryingly, Mauritius appears to be and have been the most prepared African nation for an oil spill, boasting a comprehensive oil spill contingency plan approved by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This plan builds on the learnings received from several projects and programmes as well as practical Mauritian experience from two separate oil spill incidents in 2005 and 2016. At a March 2020 UNEP Conference on ‘Cooperation in preparedness and response to marine pollution incidents’, Mauritius was shown to be aware of the risk of oil spills and had undertaken sophisticated planning. Notably, however, lack of regional cooperation was identified as a risk factor, powerfully highlighting the importance of information sharing and interstate cooperation even for the most prepared nations.
In a world where technological developments have birthed accessible sources of predictive data, decision-makers can no longer cite an absence of knowledge as an excuse for failing to prevent these catastrophes. Crucially, these instruments not only enable us to anticipate risk, but also to communicate this almost instantly. Among the numerous instruments available to facilitate this information sharing, the IORIS platform, developed by the CRIMARIO project, provides a secure information sharing and incident management tool, where user countries are able to set up a collaborative working environment to improve the understanding of the maritime domain and coordinate operations when incidents at sea occur. The potential use of IORIS is still underestimated as it could both have national (coast-guard/interagency) and regional functions, as a tool enhancing connectivity and information sharing with regards to vessels of interest, irrespective of the nature of the maritime safety and security threat.
Information sharing is paramount in the improvement of maritime domain awareness (MDA) and especially visible in the approach of the European Union towards MDA in the Western Indian Ocean, where both CRIMARIO (with IORIS) and the MAS platform developed by the MASE programme, aim to achieve a productive and cooperative common information sharing environment. Indeed, access to, but in particular the constant use of such information sharing systems, along with a cooperative approach, is essential to ensuring a timely, efficient, and coordinated prevention and response to limit incidents at sea like the MV Wakashio one.
Picture from: TRT World