The Recent Mauritius Oil Spill in Policy and Historical Context

Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics and
Executive Director Australia South Asia Research Centre, Australian
National University

By Raghbendra Jha
CANBERRA, Australia, Aug 26 2020 (IPS)

On July 25 2020 the Japanese bulk carrier MV Wakashio with 3,894
tonnes of fuel aboard ran aground off the cost of Mauritius. By 9
August over 1000 tonnes of oil had seeped into the pristine waters
off the coast of this beautiful island haven. This spill was so
large that it was even visible from space https://www.livescience.com/mauritius-oil-spill-from-space.html

Raghbendra Jha

Naturally, this accident led to a state of panic in the country.
Not only would the pollution emanating from the oil spill lead to a
strong hit to the economic mainstay of the country (fishing,
tourism etc.) and ruin the environment around it, but also efforts
to control the spill would be very expensive, subject to
considerable uncertainty, and fraught with risk during the corona
pandemic. Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend
crucially on the sea for food and eco-tourism, having fostered a
reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class
destination for nature lovers. However, the clean-up after the
spill posed formidable challenges. As noted by commentators it is
not even clear who would be liable to pay for the clean-up of the
environment.


http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/08/mauritius-oil-spill-puts-spotlight-ship-pollution/

There is the additional complication that Mauritius lies on a very
busy shipping lane – particularly for fuel. Although cleaning up
of waters is part of the Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 14)
there is little clarity on the institutional and legal mechanism to
support a clean-up after an oil spill, particularly near small
island nations. In this particular case, some help has been
forthcoming from the Japanese but the clean-up is far from complete
and there is the risk that the ship may break up.

In a historical context two facts about oil spills stand out

https://www.itopf.org/knowledge-resources/data-statistics/statistics/

First, reflecting better technology and improvement in practices,
over the period 1970-2019 the number of large oil spills (>700
tonnes) has come down quite significantly. The decline in medium
term spills (7-700 tonnes) has also been quite spectacular. The
number of medium (large) spills was 543 (245) in the 1970s, 360
(94) in the 1980s, 281 (77) in the 1990s, 149 (32) in the 2000s,
and 44(18) in the 2010s, even though the volume of fuel transported
has increased very sharply over this period. Second, at the
individual times of occurrence spectacular large spills near major
ports have received more policy and media attention. By way of
comparison with the spill near Mauritius the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil
tanker accident in Alaska spilled 37,000 tons of crude and, of
course, garnered considerably more media and policy attention.
Although the Mauritius oil spill counts as a large oil spill the
fact that it has not occurred near a major port and has occurred
against the backdrop of the corona pandemic makes it less likely
that it will stimulate long-term policy action.

Since international waters, including the waters off the coast
of Mauritius, are a public good, it is ordinarily difficult to
price the consequence of a mishap occurring in such waters. In the
case of the Mauritius oil spill the Japan P&I which provided
insurance cover to the ship’s owner, Nagasaki Shipping Company,
has attested that it will carry out all its insurance obligations
to the ship’s owner. This would include removal of the broken
ship and the clean-up. However, the Mauritius government would need
to depend on the local courts to recoup the environmental losses.
Whether these courts have the wherewithal and the resources to
adjudicate such cases involving large and powerful shipping
companies and insurers is another matter.

It is at this point that the importance of the development of
international norms for deciding on the environmental costs becomes
evident. It is clear that when the damage is caused by
multinational shipping companies backed by large insurers the
adjudicating authority should have the backing of some sort of
international law for fixing liabilities. Local courts in Mauritius
cannot be expected to seek adequate compensation from powerful
international actors. A clear set of guidelines on fixing damages
should be agreed on by all nations. Although this will require an
enormous amount of goodwill and effort from various nations it has
the potential of generating other beneficial spinoffs, e.g., the
scope of fixing liabilities for oil spills could be expanded to
include other environmental damages inflicted on international
waters including the dumping of waste into the seas and the
consequences of ship breakups in the high seas. Currently, as
reported by UNCTAD not all countries agree on norms for fixing such
damages. This needs to be sorted out at the earliest. In the
absence of such agreement future oil spills, especially those near
the coast line of small island states, will continue to wreck
considerable economic and environmental damage.

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The Recent Mauritius Oil Spill in Policy and Historical Context

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Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics and
Executive Director Australia South Asia Research Centre, Australian
National University

The post
The Recent Mauritius Oil Spill in Policy and Historical Context

appeared first on Inter Press
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The Recent Mauritius Oil Spill in Policy and Historical
Context