A ship embraced by Mauritius that is dumping tons of oil into the ocean is bursting, the prime minister said, threatening an even greater ecological and economic disaster for the island nation.
More than 1,000 tonnes of fuel have been collected by the bulk carrier MV Wakashio in the blue sea southeast of Mauritius, scratching coral reefs, white sandy beaches and pristine lagoons that attract tourists from all over the world.
But another 2,500 tonnes remain on the battered vessel, which was surrounded in a reef on July 25 but only began to erupt tooth from a crack in the hull last week.
Experts warn that a further rupture could produce a spill that would be beyond catastrophic for the fragile coastal ecosystem on which Mauritius rests, and its economy.
Mauritius declares emergency over oil spill from submarine (2:18)
Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth on Sunday said the reaction crews had managed to stimulate the flow for now but were in bad shape for the worse.
“The killings have increased. The situation is even worse,” he said. “The risk of the ship breaking in half still exists.”
Japan on Sunday said it would send a team of six members to help with what Mauritius has declared an unprecedented environmental emergency.
France also sent a naval vessel, a military aircraft and technical advisers from the island near Reunion after Mauritius called for international help.
Thousands of volunteers, many head to toe stained with black mud, marched along the coastline, joining miles of makeshift floating obstacles made of straw, in a desperate attempt to hold back the oily tide.
Mitsui OSK Lines, which runs the ship owned by another Japanese company, promised on Sunday that it would “make every effort to resolve the issue”.
“We are very bad,” Akihiko Ono, deputy head of the transport firm, told reporters in Tokyo.
But some fear the damage has already been done.
Aerial images show the magnitude of the catastrophe, with vast expanses of crystal clear seas around the truck-laden ship spotted a deeply angry black.
The thick milk has engulfed mangrove forests and unbroken streams up and down the coastline, causing irreparable damage and undoing years of arduous conservation work, environmental activists say.
The mess has already started to go further on the coast, shrouded in strong winds and currents.
“I think it is already too late. If the ship explodes in two, the situation will get out of control,” Vassen Kauppaymuthoo, an oceanographer and environmental engineer, told AFP news agency.
“We are talking about a major disaster that is progressing and becoming more complicated hour by hour.”
Pressure is mounting on the government to explain why no more was done in the two weeks since the ship was embraced.
The opposition has demanded the resignation of environment and fisheries ministers, while volunteers have ignored an official order to leave the clean-up operation to local authorities, donating rubber gloves to extinguish the sludge.
“Thousands of people are gathering. No one is listening to the government anymore,” said Ashok Subron, an environmental activist in Mahebourg, one of the worst-hit areas.
“People have realized that they have to take matters into their own hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora.”
Mauritius and its 1.3 million inhabitants depend heavily on the sea for ecotourism, as they had fostered a reputation as a conservation success story and a world-class destination for nature lovers.
The spill is a double blow to tour operators who had hoped foreign tourists could soon return to Mauritius, which currently has no active case of the novel coronavirus.