Oil Spills and Climate Change: Who Suffers Most?

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

It was reported earlier in August 2020 that a Japanese vessel, MV Wakashio, spilt oil just off the coast of Mauritius, and into the Indian Ocean, creating for the country a national disaster in a matter of hours.

The ship was carrying about 3,800 metric tons of Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) and 200 metric tons of diesel when the incident occurred on July 25. It is worthy of note that as of August 6, 2020, approximately 3,000 metric tons of oil has been recovered from the vessel and transferred to small tankers, according to the company which owns the ship.

To understand the magnitude of the situation, we must consider a few things. Mauritius is home to some of the most unique biodiversity in the world as it boasts of three (3) United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) protected status areas (all linked to one another), over a thousand unique species of sea animals, birds as well as the important coral reefs which keep these animals alive.

The significance of this event cannot be lost on us. Often, we see that developing nations bear the brunt of climate change, an issue that many would argue that developed nations in the west have contributed to.

Whether it be an oil spill off the coast of a less economically developed country (LEDC), or the frequency of floods in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and India, climate refugees in East Africa as a result of extreme heat or drought leading to starvation, nations who have not yet had the opportunity to develop in the way western countries have, are already being stifled with the responsibility of climate change and the effects of climate change on weather patterns and quality of life. These examples are of natural disasters that are becoming worse due to human activity. 

Oil spills are unique in nature. They do not occur often as flooding, cyclones etc occur (depending on where you live). However, when they do, they are catastrophic.

The effects can be felt both for creatures who live on land and in the sea. This has a direct effect on at least four  (4) sustainable development goals: Goal 12 – Responsible consumption and production; Goal 13 – Climate Action; Goal 14 – Life below water and Goal  15 – Life on Land.

How do these play out? Well, each oil spill sets us at least a decade back when it comes to climate action regarding life on land and life below water. Moreover, it tends to happen that the communities from which the oil is pulled or transported through are not the beneficiaries of the money raised through the sale and transportation of oil.

Most importantly, each disaster of this magnitude makes us question whether the disadvantages of the use and consumption of oil is worth it or if there are cleaner ways of creating energy or powering our machines?

Climate change on a macro level

One of the regions extremely affected by climate change is Bangladesh. Bangladesh shows us that the biggest contributors to climate change are not necessarily the first to experience the consequences.

China contributes 10% to the Carbon emissions that lead to global warming while the combination of the EU, USA and China make up 50% of the carbon emissions. (Pidcock, 2016). Africa, the rest of Asia and South America make up the other 40%.  

Bangladesh could very well be the first country to lose over half of its current landmass to rising sea levels. About 80% of the country’s land is the floodplains of three large rivers, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

This means that the geo-location of the country already puts it at a disadvantage. But the rapid deterioration of the earth’s climate means that Bangladesh now receives more frequent and extreme flooding, cyclones etc., all of which are pushing the citizens more inland as their coastal areas erode into the sea.

Climate change on a micro level

On a micro level, this is something that can be contained and managed to a degree.  However, Bangladesh is synonymous with the many cities across the world who also stand to be submerged in seawater in a few years. It is worthy of note that this requires detailed preparation, planning and resources.

Now Back to oil spills and how it impacts climate change efforts. After an oil spill occurs, the oil continues to spread and eventually become a thin layer, called a 'sheen'. Depending on the weather, the spread can either be contained or become uncontrollable. 

This sheen is damaging for many sea mammals, birds and underwater creatures. Fish can experience fin erosion and reproductive issues. Birds, in an attempt to self-clean the oil off their feathers, can ingest the oil, affecting their internal organs. The dilemma that oil spills presents are that the effects are felt long after the media coverage has ceased.

As is the case with Mauritius, the effects are yet to be known. But one thing is sure: the ecosystem and communities who rely on these creatures will feel both the immediate and lasting effect before any news outlet or investigation concludes the damages.

The question then becomes: what are some possible next steps that the country of Mauritius can embark on?

Firstly, there must be a robust cleaning process to remove as much oil from the surface as possible. Previous oil spills have shown that oil can never be fully cleaned up. For example,  areas and settlements near the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 have been found to still have oil in the soil 2 decades after the ordeal.  

The company responsible for the Wakashio vessel, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines must bear full responsibility, morally and financially to the nation of Mauritius. Morally they have done so. However, the true test of integrity will be seen in how they work with the government of Mauritius to follow through on their promise to pay the damages associated with an oil spill. 

The scientific community within Mauritius must also record this period as accurately as possible. That means collecting samples and testing; longitudinal research that will monitor the impact of the oil spill in a way that can not only shape future policies but also be a point of reference for other smaller countries that may ever have to deal with such an incident.

Moreover, Mauritius must look at where it stands when it comes to climate change and its effects. Mauritius is an island and as such, stands to lose far more in the war against climate change than other countries. One of the biggest threats to islands such as Mauritius is 'rising sea levels'.

This can increase the risk of flooding and or potentially push the sheen more inland. The consequences that can be expected from this is increased health risks in Mauritius' future population and degradation of soil and crops.

Finally, if policies are not already in place, then Mauritius must act fast to protect its fisheries and ports. The location of Mauritius is of great benefit to the country’s attempts to diversify into fisheries. It sits between the continents’ of Africa and Asia, for which there is a natural demand for the variety of species which inhabit the seas that surround Mauritius.

The revenue will be much needed and could be a new method of raising money for the government.

Works Cited:

  • Degnarain, N. (2020, August 12). 15 Rare Species In Danger From The Wakashio Vessel Oil Disaster In Mauritius. Retrieved from FORBES: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nishandegnarain/2020/08/12/15-rare-species-in-danger-from-the-wakashio-oil-disaster-in-mauritius/#431df7a845d5

  • Karim, M. F., & Mimura, N. (2008). Impacts of climate change and sea-level rise on cyclonic storm surge floods in Bangladesh. Global Environmental Change(18), 490 - 500. Retrieved August 2020

  • Noggin, L. (2019, Dec 23). What happens after an oil spill? Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nshSoLw0tdI

  • Pidcock, R. (2016, March 17). Retrieved from Carbon Brief: https://www.carbonbrief.org/china-is-responsible-for-10-of-human-influence-on-climate-change-study-says

  • Schuler, M. (2020, August). Wakashio Ship Owner Promises Compensation for Grounding. Retrieved from GCaptain: https://gcaptain.com/wakashio-ship-owner-promises-compensation-for-wakashio-grounding/