Oil on troubled waters: coordinating responses to environmental disasters in Indian Ocean island states

For several years, Japan has been investing heavily in its diplomatic engagement with Indian Ocean island states and may now need to consider how to better extend that engagement to environmental security challenges. A recent environmental disaster in Mauritius caused by the grounding of a Japanese cargo ship showed how vulnerable island states are to environmental security threats. It also demonstrated the potential for reputational damage where adequate regional response mechanisms aren’t in place. There’s an opportunity for the Quad partners—Australia, Japan, India and the US—and other like-minded countries to work together to mitigate future threats.

In July this year, the MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned and Panama-flagged cargo ship, ran aground on a coral reef just off the coast of Mauritius, setting the scene for what’s been called the worst environmental disaster ever experienced by that country. Thirteen days later, the ship began breaking apart, releasing some 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil over an area of 27 square kilometres and poisoning a major marine reserve and internationally recognised wetlands.

Mauritius declared a state of environmental emergency but had little capability of its own to respond. The government, NGOs, fishermen and local volunteers sought to contain the spill using small tourist boats, fishing vessels and homemade oil booms made from clothing, plastic bottles and dried sugar-cane leaves.

The accident led to major protests against the Mauritian government, and up to 75,000 protesters in the capital, Port Louis, called for the prime minister’s resignation.

The event prompted an international response from several countries and organisations. France took the lead by providing military and civilian equipment from nearby Réunion. Japan, India, Australia, the UK and the International Maritime Organization, among others, also provided equipment, materials and expert assistance.

Japan’s response included sending three teams of experts to assess the damage and advise on rehabilitation measures, although that led to some confusion when Japanese experts were reported as stating that there was ‘no damage’ to coral reefs and mangroves from spilled oil. The Japanese government also provided an initial US$34 million in assistance to purchase 100 new fishing boats. There’s little doubt that Japan will feel compelled to provide significant additional economic assistance in the future.

In recent years, Japan has considerably increased its focus on building its reputation and influence in the Indian Ocean region, including among the island states. This has included opening Japanese missions in the Maldives (2016), Mauritius (2017) and Seychelles (2019) and hosting a summit for leaders of 10 western Indian Ocean states in 2019. Those moves have been accompanied by a significant uptick in Japanese official development aid and infrastructure investment, including in Madagascar, the Maldives, Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

The financial liability of the Japanese owner of the Wakashio is tightly capped by an international treaty, but the reputational costs to Japan may be far higher, and this incident may have damaged some of the good work that Japan has been doing in the region in recent years.

The Indian Ocean may be one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to a range of environmental security threats, whether stemming from climate change, extreme weather events or human activities such as shipping and fishing. The Indian Ocean island states are on the front line of these challenges, as they’re among the most vulnerable to such threats and have the least capabilities to respond.

In recent years, there have been some useful initiatives for Indian Ocean islands in such areas as climate change adaptation, but there remains a need for a collaborative regional partnership, sponsored by major regional states and key users of the ocean, to help plan for and coordinate local and international responses to environmental security incidents. This could perhaps be a ‘Quad Plus’ project involving key countries with important interests in the Indian Ocean, such as Japan, India, France, the US and Australia.

Like the US Indo-Pacific Command–sponsored Pacific Environmental Security Partnership, an Indian Ocean environmental security partnership would build standing relationships among civil and military agencies to build local partners’ capacity, contribute to regional environmental strategy and mitigate threats and vulnerabilities.

As is the case with some standing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief arrangements elsewhere in the region (such as the FRANZ arrangement in the Pacific), an Indian Ocean environmental security partnership could also help coordinate and facilitate outside assistance in response to specific incidents.

Collective efforts must focus on threat prevention as well as response. In the Mauritius disaster, satellite data—which is available for all large commercial ships—clearly indicated that the Wakashio had been on course to strike the reef for several days after straying from usual shipping routes. Last-minute efforts by local authorities to contact the ship to change its course came too late.

Regional early-warning systems are being developed among Indian Ocean island states to predict extreme weather events. Existing technologies could also be used to develop an early-warning system for shipping disasters that would facilitate timely action to prevent future accidents.

There’s a moral imperative here. More developed countries gain many benefits from international trade (including international norms, such as freedom of the seas), but in many cases environmental challenges, including the environmental costs associated with shipping, are borne by regional countries. A regional environmental security partnership would be an important signal that larger countries recognise and understand the environmental challenges faced by Indo-Pacific island states.