from HANSLEY NABAB in Port Louis, Mauritius
PORT LOUIS – THE oil spill afflicting Mauritius has brought to the fore the threat to small island nations’ vulnerable marine and ocean economies by ship-source pollution.
It also highlights the vulnerability of habitats such as mangroves, sea-grasses and corals.
The spill of an estimated 1 000 tonnes by the MV Wakashio offshore of Pointe d’Esny since July 25 is considered as the worst in the history of Indian Ocean island country.
It has endangered coral, fish and other marine life, imperiling the economy, food security, health and the US$1,6 billion tourism industry in the country, already suffering from the negative effects of coronavirus (COVID-19).
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is concerned that often close to world shipping lanes, small island and coastal nations are at particular risk from oil spills.
Dependent on the marine environment and its biodiversity for tourism, fishing and aquaculture, islanders face an existential threat when oil spills happen in their waters.
“This is why the environmental crisis unfolding in Mauritius is of grave concern,” stated Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.
The Mauritius disaster also brings into focus the international legal framework in place to provide support when ship-source environmental disasters strike.
Several international conventions govern the seas and their use but some are not ratified by all countries that might benefit, and others are yet to enter into force.
This, according to UNCTAD, creates murky waters when oil spills happen.
“There’s a need for universal participation in the existing international legal framework, where all nations are party to agreements, so when incidents like this occur, vulnerable countries are protected,” Sirimanne said.
The spill also highlights the vulnerability of marine ecosystems and habitats such as mangroves, seagrasses and corals.
Mauritius’ disrupted tourism sector accounts for 36 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
It happened at critical time since coral reproduction and early life stages are particularly sensitive to oil.
Oil is a complex mixture of numerous chemicals and can kill corals, depending on species and exposure.
Chronic oil poisonousness hinders coral reproduction, growth, behavior and development.
The government of President Prithvirajsing Roopun has declared a state of environmental emergency and disaster response is underway.
Mauritius’ disaster coincided with the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) adopting a recommendation to safeguard the future of coral reefs.
A coral reef is an underwater ecosystem characterised by reef-building corals, which are defined as marine invertebrates.
ICRI recognises the vulnerability of coral reefs to climate change, ocean acidification, land-based pollution such as nutrients and sediments from agriculture, sea-based pollution, overfishing, among other activities.
It adopted the above-stated recommendation two months ago after more than 18 months of work and stakeholder consultations.
Recommendations encourage countries to safeguard coral reef ecosystems.
Leticia Carvalho, head of the United Nations Environmental Programme’s (UNEP’s) Marine and Fresh Water, supported the recommendation.
She explained that coral reefs were the most biodiverse ecosystems in the ocean, housing approximately 25 percent of marine species and providing livelihoods for at least 500 million people around the world.
“Unfortunately they are also the most vulnerable ecosystem to climate change globally,” Carvalho lamented.
The envoy urged the global community to commit to addressing the crisis.
“The time is now for member states to join hands to address the global coral reef crisis,” Carvalho encouraged.
Corals support a quarter of all marine life, protect coastlines from damage by buffering shorelines against waves, storms and floods.
Estimates indicate that coral reefs account for $2,7 trillion per year in ecosystem service value.
– CAJ News