Mauritius: Covid-19, Oil Spill in Mauritius Highlight the Vulnerabilities of Small Island Developing States

Official distribution of COVID-19 cases in Mauritius - 12 March 2021

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in late July 2020, a Japanese bulk carrier, MV Wakashio, struck a reef in the coastal area of south-eastern Mauritius, leaking about 1,000 tonnes of oil. The accident caused an ecological disaster and has severely impacted the life and livelihood of residents of many coastal communities in the country. In this interview with Africa Renewal's Kingsley Ighobor, Ms. Amanda Serumaga, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative for Mauritius and Seychelles, shares perspectives on the oil spill's impact on the citizens and on the country, the recovery process, as well as the vulnerabilities of Small Island Developing States. These are excerpts:

What is your assessment of the impact of the July 2020 oil spill on the environment and the life and livelihood of Mauritians?

The MV Wakashio was grounded on 25 July 2020 and by 9 August 2020, an estimated 1,000 tonnes of oil had spilled into the south-eastern coastal waters at the fringing coral reefs of Pointe d'Esny, just 400 m from the shore. The disaster has impacted lives, livelihoods and, more broadly, has implications on the economy and the environment.

Pointe d'Esny is home to key biodiversity hotspots and hosts UNESCO Ramsar sites, islets, nature reserves and a marine park, which provide critical natural habitats for endangered indigenous flora and fauna. According to conservationists, the consequences of the oil spill could take years to reverse.

Following the oil spill, the UNDP collaborated with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to conduct an impact assessment, as part of the broader UN emergency response that is coordinated by the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator. One of the findings was that the spill directly affected approximately 48,000 Mauritians living in 17 coastal villages along the 30 km shoreline.

Also, the national authorities continue to evaluate the environmental, ecological, social and economic impacts on marine, coastal and related industries, including tourism and fisheries.

As you know, fishing, including artisanal fishing and aquaculture, support the livelihoods of numerous families.

Besides, we need to consider that in 2019, the tourism industry contributed 8.1 per cent of Mauritius' GVA [gross value added], with spillovers estimated at above 20 per cent of GVA. More than 1.4 million tourists visited the island that year, generating earnings of up to MUR 63 billion ($1.8 billion). The oil spill threatened domestic and international perceptions around the country's main tourist attractions, including sandy beaches and unique biodiversity.

I must mention that the closure of public beaches also affected several dependent businesses and many people now rely on alternative livelihoods such as cash for work through the cleaning exercise, government financial support and support from non-governmental organizations, community organizations, neighbours and friends.

What are the implications of the oil spill on Mauritius' blue economy?

The blue economy is around 20 per cent of the Mauritian economy, and the south-eastern coast relies heavily on fishing and tourism. Following the oil spill, coastal and marine activities were stopped for a time and many areas were closed to the public to allow for clean-up.

Fishing activities were suspended, and some fishermen were unable to maintain their boats and fishing equipment, resulting in additional repair costs and loss of equipment. And in many cases, fishing families did not have alternative sources of income. As I mentioned earlier, such families now depend on civil society organizations and the government.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected efforts to address the situation?

At the time of the oil spill, Mauritius was considered 'COVID-19 safe,' meaning there were no locally transmitted cases. This was achieved in part by limiting international travel and enforcing public health and social measures. From a practical point of view, the pandemic limited the country's access to some international support due to travel restrictions. The government instituted strict sanitary protocols for technical specialists.

The COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions on international travel already impacted Mauritius' socio-economic conditions and the oil spill further compounded the impact on livelihoods for people in coastal communities.

The UNDP launched a crowdfunding campaign to respond to the oil spill. How successful is this initiative so far?

Crowdfunding is a relatively new initiative in UNDP. The #StrongerTogether campaign was launched to advocate for the support to respond to the oil spill. It is important that our outreach and advocacy efforts include a platform through which individuals can render much-needed support for a good cause.

The crowdfunding campaign has so far reached a wide audience in Japan. With the significant impact of COVID-19 on people's lives and the global attention on the pandemic, we look forward to more support.

UNDP in Japan has contributed to the campaign and continues to mobilize partners to advance the sustainable development of Africa through TICAD [Tokyo International Conference on African Development].

The blue economy is a priority in the TICAD process. At the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) in Yokohama, Japan in 2019, which was attended by 42 African leaders, Japan, Kenya and UNDP agreed to jointly advocate for transformative actions that will foster Africa's blue economy.

Japan's Vice Foreign Minister, Masahisa Sato, said at the Yokohama event that Japan, a leading maritime nation, would help promote a blue economy in Africa. The UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, also emphasized equitable and sustainable utilization of water resources.

So, our current support to recovery from the oil spill aligns with the commitments made at TICAD7.

One of the aims of the campaign is to support sustainable fishing in the coastal communities, to replenish fish stocks in the lagoon. How are you going about this?

With socio-economic activities gradually restarting in the south-east, it is critical to focus on green recovery through nature-based solutions, balanced with the economic resilience of the vulnerable communities.

UNDP maintains a broad portfolio on adaptation and mitigation. We are supporting artisanal fishing in communities on the south-eastern coast of the country, and additional support through the crowdfunding campaign would be welcomed.

For example, the EU-UNDP E€OFISH programme will, over 48 months, assist the artisanal fishing communities of Mauritius and Rodrigues and ensure sustainable management of coastal fisheries on both islands. The E€OFISH programme offers livelihood opportunities for artisanal fishers, enhances food security and contributes to the sustainable management of the environment.

Beneficiaries will be trained in best fishing practices, including the use of modern techniques and facilities such as GPS [Global Positioning System] and Fish Aggregating Devices for off-lagoon fishing. They will also benefit from environmentally friendly post-harvest infrastructure and training to apply EU-norms for fish hygiene to enable them to access export markets.

We are also keen on the greater participation of women and young people in post-harvest processing.

In addition to Japan, how does UNDP coordinate with the government and other partners on this issue?

The UN Resident Coordinator leads the UN system response to the Wakashio oil spill disaster.

UNDP channels its contribution in coordination with the wider UN system. UNDP worked with IOM to provide on-site technical support for rapid assessment of the socio-economic impact of the spill on households and to gather relevant information to aid response planning.

On a day-to-day basis, we work closely with the Ministry of Environment, Solid Waste Management and Climate Change and the Ministry of Blue Economy, Marine Resources, Fisheries and Shipping.

I must mention that the government, the communities and many civil society organizations were quick to take actions to counter the oil spill.

Do you have any reflections?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Wakashio oil spill have laid bare the vulnerabilities of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in terms of their capacity to withstand external shocks. The pandemic and the oil spill pose significant health and economic shocks for SIDS, which represent 20 per cent of UN member states. It is important that the development community continues to champion the SIDS' call for a greater focus and recalibration of support in their countries.

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