Mauritius residents join efforts to contain oil spill as grounded ship splits in two

“It’s a people’s factory, a mobilization zone for Mauritians,” said environmental activist David Sauvage.

The bulk carrier ship MV Wakashio began to break on Thursday near at the Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius.Reuben Pillay / Reuters

FLOREAL, Mauritius —As citizen-led rescue efforts continued, a ship that ran aground off the coast of Mauritius broke in two on Saturday, raising concerns that more oil would spill out near the coast of the Indian Ocean island.

The tiny nation’s government said in a statement posted to Facebook that it had “predicted” the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio would split, adding it was taking “precautionary measures” to contain further spillages.

Volunteers make handmade oil barriers at the Mahebourg waterfront in Mauritius earlier this week. AFP - Getty Images

The ship was heading to Brazil when it ran aground on Mauritius’ southeast coast on July 25. It was carrying an estimated 4,000 metric tons of oil, some of which has seeped into the country’s turquoise water, threatening to ruin its coral reefs, protected lagoons and shoreline — vital for the nation’s main industry, tourism.

Alongside official cleanup efforts, locals have taken matters into their own hands.

As the beats blasted out, an emcee encouraged scores of volunteers to work around the clock on the Mahebourg Waterfront where they were creating makeshift “booms” to combat the spill.

“It’s a people’s factory, a mobilization zone for Mauritians,” David Sauvage, an environmental activist, told NBC News Friday.

Desperate to salvage what they can, people have traveled from all over the island to take part in the operation.

They create the booms by stuffing a net-type fabric with dried sugar cane leaves and attach empty bottles to keep them afloat.

Volunteers lift part of a natural boom made of sugarcane leaves onto their shoulders in Bois des Amourettes, Mauritius on Wednesday. The boom was then hauled into a boat, to be placed into the lagoon.Beata Albert

Sewn together, they create a temporary floating barrier designed to contain the oil spill and reduce the possibility of it polluting the shoreline.

“The waterfront is a collaborative learning space,” said Ameerah Arjanee, a volunteer who took time off from her job at a nongovernmental organization to help with the boom-making initiative.

Mauritians of all ages, ethnicities and social classes were collaborating on the effort, she said, adding that several food stations had been set up. A barber was cutting and collecting hair to place in the booms to soak up the oil, she said. People across the country have also donated their locks for the cause.

Musicians come to play for free at night, she said.

Hundreds more donned gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment and plunged neck-deep into the oil, cleaning the mangroves and ocean as best they could.

Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are also at risk, the government warned earlier this week.

Volunteers prepare a handmade barrier to block leaked oil at the Mahebourg Waterfront in Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius on Tuesday.Sumeet Mudhoo/L'Express Maurice / Reuters

Shaama Sandooyea, a graduate in marine environmental sciences, donned personal protective equipment to clean the oil-affected shore of Bambous Virieux, along with other volunteers.

“I worked for an hour at a time, to not fall ill. But I’ve started developing headaches, a cough, nausea. Others have spent hours breathing in the volatile components of heavy oil. Authorities didn’t help us,” she said.

The noxious fumes have also forced schools to close on the island, which had emerged from the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic two months ago relatively unscathed, with only 344 total cases and 10 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins' Coronavirus Resource Center.

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The Mauritian government said Thursday that while most of the oil that remained in the MV Wakashio had been pumped, around 166 metric tons of fuel were still inside the bulk carrier and authorities were working to remove it. It is unclear how much has been removed since then.

Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi said Saturday that Tokyo planned to send a team of officials from the ministry and other specialists to assess the damage from the oil spill. The ship is owned by Japan's Nagashiki Shipping and chartered by Mitsui OSK Lines.

Mauritius’ Ministry of the Environment also said in a statement Saturday that experts were in place to take care of the situation and called for production of the booms to cease.

Fishermen volunteer near the area where MV Wakashio ran aground on a reef.Reuben Pillay / Reuters

But some were skeptical of the claim and vowed to continue their cleanup efforts.

“We work in sync with the authorities and monitor the situation,” opposition party Rezistans ek Alternativ said in a statement. “They are the frontline. But when the frontline fails, we’re there to help.”

In the meantime, on the waterfront, Sauvage said they would continue to develop makeshift devices to handle the spill.

“It’s all about open knowledge, live prototypes,” he said.