The Recent Mauritius Oil Spill in Policy and Historical Context

  • Opinion by Raghbendra Jha (canberra, australia)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics and Executive Director Australia South Asia Research Centre, Australian National University

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.

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. 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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