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'We Are Expecting the Worst': Alarm Over Eco Crisis Grows Amid Fears Ship Leaking Oil Near Mauritius Could Break in Two

Climate campaigers charge that "this oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels."

Bystanders look at MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and is leaking oil near Blue Bay Marine Park in southeast Mauritius on August 6, 2020. (Photo: Dev Ramkhelawon/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

Bystanders look at MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and is leaking oil near Blue Bay Marine Park in southeast Mauritius on August 6, 2020. (Photo: Dev Ramkhelawon/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images)

Urgent efforts to contain an oil spill off the coast of Mauritius reportedly ramped up on Monday due to fears that a cracked ship spilling fuel into the Indian Ocean—polluting nearby coral reefs, mangrove forests, and beaches of the island nation—could soon split in two, exacerbating the local environmental crisis.

Though the Japanese-owned vessel ran aground on a coral reef near Mauritius on July 25, work to safely remove the estimated 4,000 tonnes of oil it was carrying kicked off last week, when the ship starting seeping fuel into the ocean. Over 1,000 tonnes of oil is believed to have leaked into the surrounding waters.

The Associated Press reported Monday that "high winds and waves are pounding the MV Wakashio," a ship owned by Nagashiki Shipping and operated by Mitsui OSK Lines, also based in Japan. The vessel departed China on July 14 and was bound for Brazil, but is now leaking oil about a mile from Mauritius, which is east of the African continent.

Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has declared an environmental emergency and called for international help. France, which formerly colonized the island nation, dispatched a naval vessel, a military aircraft, and technical advisers while Japan said Sunday it would send a six-person team to help.

Jugnauth told reporters Sunday that emergency crews temporarily stemmed the leak but were still preparing for the worst. He also expressed concerned about the condition of the stranded ship. "The cracks have grown. The situation is even worse," he said. "The risk of the boat breaking in half still exists."

Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne echoed that warning to the AP on Monday, saying that "we are expecting the worst."

"The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days," Gardenne said. "So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

French experts from the nearby island of Reunion were deploying booms to try to contain oil that "should be in place within hours, which we hope will help to protect the coastline from further damage," he added. The booms are expected to bolster improvised barriers created by thousands of volunteers in Mauritius.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," Ashok Subron, a local environmental activist in Mahébourg, one of the worst impacted areas, told Agence France-Presse.

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former Greenpeace strategist and environmental expert assisting in the clean-up effort, said that "all the volunteers are covered black."

"We will never be able to recover from this damage. But what we can do is try to mitigate as much as we can," Dowarkasing told AFP from Mahébourg.

As the news agency reported:

The Wakashio struck a reef at Pointe d'Esny, an ecological jewel fringed by idyllic beaches, colorful reefs, sanctuaries for rare and endemic wildlife, and unique RAMSAR-listed wetlands.

Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend crucially on its seas for food and for ecotourism, and has fostered a reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.

Ecologists fear if the ship further breaks it could inflict potentially catastrophic damage on the island nation's coastline, which forms the backbone of the economy.

Josué Dardenne, a 42-year-old small boat tour operator, told the Guardian that the Covid-19 crisis had already impacted Mauritius, explaining that "the whole region we operate in has been affected. Our business has stopped. It has been bad for months because of the pandemic but now it's going to get worse."

Global climate campaigners have responded to the oil spill in recent days with condemnation for the fossil fuel industry and calls for international assistance.

"Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d'Esny, and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security, and health," Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa senior Climate and Energy Campaign manager, said in a statement Friday, calling on the United Nations and all governments to support Mauritius' clean-up work.

"There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport, and store fossil fuel products. This oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels. We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels," added Khambule. "Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the climate crisis, as well as devastating oceans and biodiversity and threatening local livelihoods around some of Africa's most precious lagoons."

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