Legacies & Learnings: A Case Study of Oil Spills in the Indian Ocean Region

Sub Title : Coordinated and comprehensive measures will ensure that challenges of oil spills are dealt with effectively

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2021

Author : Dr Saurabh Thakur

Page No. : 50

Category : Geostrategy

: December 2, 2021

Oil spills pose challenges ranging from operational capacity to legal interventions and liabilities, and socio-economic impacts on local populations. There are a several steps being taken to improve management of the same but there is scope for more coordinated and comprehensive measures that will ensure that the challenges of oil spills and marine pollution are dealt with effectively

Oil spills cause severe distress to marine and coastal ecosystems and impair the livelihoods and health of people who are dependent on these ecosystems. These impacts have been studied and documented for decades, which has led to more effective management of oil spill disasters in recent decades (See Figure 1). However, the sharp rise in the scale of maritime trade and the evolution of ships and carriers has meant that even a single major oil spill incident can lead to severe short-term and long-term impacts. The nature of the impact on the marine ecosystems depends on a wide range of factors such as the quantity of oil spilt, type of oils, clean-up mechanisms, climate and weather conditions, location of spills, and biological composition of the environment, which includes both floral and faunal sensitivity. Apart from their environmental impacts the oil spill incidents, especially within the territorial waters of states, challenge the socio-economic and socio-ecological resilience of communities who are directly impacted by them.

History of Oil Spills

The annual rate of an average number of spills above 7 tonnes in the 2010s was 6.3, which is a sharp 65 per cent drop from the average in the previous decade (See Figure 1). The key reasons behind this sharp drop are the stricter regulations and improvements made in the safety standards in the shipping industry.  Another positive development has been the total volume of oil spilt at sea which has come down to 164,000 tonnes in the last decade, which is almost comparable to single year oil spillages in the previous decades. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) notes that, “In the 1990s there were 358 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 1,134,000 tonnes of oil lost; 73% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents… In the 2010s there were 63 spills of 7 tonnes and over, resulting in 164,000 tonnes of oil lost; 91% of this amount was spilt in just 10 incidents. One incident was responsible for about 70% of the quantity of oil spilt.”

However, this statistic only provides half a picture because it excludes the less than 7 tonnes category of oil spills which account for more than 80 per cent of all oil spills. There is lesser clarity on the nature and damage of smaller oil spills due to lack of reliable data. The major causes behind the larger oil spills include allisions/ collisions, groundings, hull failures, equipment failures, fires and explosions. Apart from these causes, there are “other” causes that involve human error and heavy weather damage and “Unknown” causes where reliable data is not available. In the past decade alone, when the reporting improved considerably, allisions/collisions were the most common cause of oil spills, accounting for nearly 44 per cent of all medium (7-700 tonnes) as well as large spills (Above 700 tonnes). This trend could be attributed to the rise in vessel traffic and maritime trade across the world.

Case Study: MV Wakashio

On July 25, 2020, the Panama-flagged bulk carrier MV Wakashio, bound for Brazil, ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, leaking nearly 1000 metric tons of fuel into the coral reefs and wetlands inside a marine protected area. The bulk carrier, of the dimension of around 300 m length and 50 m is carrying low-sulphur fuel oil (3894 metric tonnes), diesel (207 metric tonnes) and lubricant oil (90 metric tonnes) for use onboard. This was major accident raised several questions regarding national and regional state contingency planning, shipping sector and carries severe short term and long-term ecological implications. The Mauritian Ocean Territory floor has over 600 ship wreckages, retired ships, and war victims, that includes the steel-hulled Dalblair shipwreck of 1902 which struck on the reefs at Pointe D’Esny, the same site where the grounding of MV Wakashio took place in 2020.

In response to the accident, the Government of Mauritius activated its national oil spill contingency plan and two weeks later, as the ship began to break down, it declared a state of environmental emergency. A number of countries including India, France and Japan, as well as from international bodies, like the IMO and OCHA, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Mauritius and the ITOPF mobilised support in form of equipment, finance and specialist teams to mitigate the tragedy.

The causes behind the incident have raised a number of controversial opinions, including the use of alcohol and bad weather theories. Casualty investigations, which are mandatory under MARPOL and SOLAS conventions, fall under the ambit of the flag State, which in this case was Panama. Lack of safety awareness has been listed as the main cause behind the incident in an inquiry by the owner company. The inquiry further suggested better training of staff and more effective oversight mechanisms including banning of private cell phones during work hours and setting up of speed communication systems as a way forward.

Over the past three decades, the government of Mauritius has been a key beneficiary of capacity building assistance to prevent oil spills, which includes two Western Indian Ocean Island Oil Spill Contingency Plan and the GEF-World Bank funded Western Indian Ocean Marine Highway Development and Coastal and Marine Contamination Prevention Project (2007-2012). Yet, as the tragedy unfolded on August 7, 2020, the volunteers from local communities, ignoring the government order to leave the clean-up operation to officials and other potential risks including fines, began actively participating in the clean-up process. This local response indicates that the government planning on the matter, which seemed robust on paper, failed when it came of implementation. The public response also reflected the building mistrust, especially after the narrowly averted tragedy in 2016, when MV Benita crashed in Mauritian waters along the coast to the south.

The Wakashio accident remains an ongoing investigation and its environmental impacts have thrown up a complex challenge to those who are running the clean-up operations. There have been serious concerns regarding the tampering allegations with the oil fingerprinting process, which is critical for conservationists to mitigate the impacts on marine life. The decision to sink a part of the ship in a primary whale nursing ground, apart from its legal validity, received a lot of criticism as it is likely to lead to heavy metal contamination. The location of the oil spill itself was in the middle of marine protected areas is a major cause of concern. Oil can be retained within the marine ecosystems and in the sediments of the intertidal zone for decades, severely affecting the complex ecosystems such as the mangroves. The spill will leave a longer-term impact on the fishing grounds in the area, thus affecting the livelihoods of local community.

Case Study: X-Press Pearl (2021)

The 2021 built container ship X-Press Pearl, sailing under the Singaporean flag, carrying 1,486 containers containing 25 tonnes of nitric acid, caught fire at the Colombo harbour on 20th May 2021, ten hours after it had docked at the Sri Lankan port. On 25 May, an explosion was reported onboard the ship, leading to debris, including plastic nurdles, crashing onto the shoreline. The owners of the newly built vessel offered apologies for the incident while defending the actions and decisions made by the crew. Both the Sri Lankan Navy and Indian coast guard were the first authorities to respond to the event with necessary equipment including oil containment booms and dispersants. The incident gained public attention as a case of misdeclarations and non-compliance with safety standards on board the vessel. The issue of fire has been a major cause of oil spills in the past decade, and sources of these fires are also changing. “In 2019, the National Cargo Bureau conducted more than 32,000 dangerous dry and tank goods inspections in the U.S. finding that nearly eight percent were non-compliant due to poor stowage/securing, misdeclared cargo, or other issues.” The fire hazards are also a consequence of the sharply increasing size of the ships to meet the demands of trade and efficiency.  The SOLAS “Safety of Life at Sea” convention was adopted in 1974 is a key instrument that deals with safety and standards of construction and operations of ships.  Both Singapore and Sri Lanka are a signatory to the Convention, but the flag state is bound by the convention to secure and comply with the requirements.

Following the accident, the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), which is the apex body responsible for the prevention and control of marine pollution in Sri Lanka, instituted a lawsuit against the X-Press owners. The government also instituted an inter-ministerial steering committee and five sub-committees under the guidance of the Ministry of Justice which will look into, “legal action, compensation claims, environmental impacts, fisheries impacts and economic damages.” Sri Lanka has seen an alarming rise in number and frequency distress incidents in recent years (See Table 2).  “Capsizing of vessels and vessels ran aground in 2019 marked alarming inclination of 366.6% and 500% compared to year 2018 and all such incidents were related to the Sri Lankan fishing vessels.” In the past two decades, Sri Lanka has faced a number of maritime disasters which has put its ambitions to enhance shipping connectivity and developing maritime hubs into jeopardy.


Vessel/year        Damages

MV Melishka     It was carrying 16,500 mt fertiliser            (1999)   and 200 mt of heavy fuel oil

before it ran aground in Sri                                          Lankan waters

MV Amanat (2006)          The vessel developed engine

issues and sank 11 kms off coast,

leading to a hazardous oil-spill of

25 metric tons.

MT Granba (2009)            The vessel faced with a leak which

led to its eventual sinking and its

cargo of 6,250 tonnes of

sulphuric acid.

MT New Diamond           It was carrying 270,000 tonnes of

(2020)   oil. It caught fire east of Sri

Lanka but one of the biggest

potential oil spills in recent

history was averted through

coordinated action over ten


MV Xpress Pearl               The ship’s cargo included 25

(2021)   tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes

of oil and billions small plastic

pellets known as nurdles which

washed up on the beaches.

Table 2: Recent maritime disasters in Sri Lanka

Findings & Recommendations

The two case studies in this article highlight the nature of the oil spill challenge for the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region which is home to a rich floral and faunal biodiversity. They also highlight the complexity of the maritime domain that is liminal, interconnected and multijurisdictional.

  The MV Wakashio incident led to a coordinated effort by different actors who have invested heavily in the Western Indian Ocean regional maritime security architecture. IMO’s efforts towards capacity building in the region has included training courses, equipment procurement and table-top exercises. However, these actors were still found wanting when it came to averting the tragedy in the real world. An important step for the states in the IOR is to develop a more robust maritime domain awareness to create networks of information sharing, joint oil spill responses, and conservation of marine resources. Given the nature of this crisis, national contingency plans must be complemented with a regional oil spill contingency plan to enhance the cleaning up mechanisms in countries that lack adequate capacity.  These oil spill incidents also made clear that national plans have to be constantly updated to meet with shifting nature of the oil and shipping sector, the changing biochemistry of oceans due to climate change and the rising scale of maritime trade.

  The impact of oil spills of marine ecosystems is varied and complex. States must invest in evidence-based analysis of these impacts to understand the long term and short impacts on socio-economic and ecological systems. This will prove critical in climatisation of national policies which is an important first step towards developing environmentally conscious contingency planning.

  States must consider declaring the fragile ecological zones in the Indian Ocean region as Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) under the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules, which the ships can avoid on their route.  It will make sailing close to the coast safer through stricter adherence to MARPOL regulations and help in the preservation of biodiversity hotspots.

  States in the IOR are signatories to important IMO conventions, but as the cases showed there was a requirement for them to update and ratify all necessary conventions, for legal action to become effective (See Table 3). A good case, for example, is the issue of typology of ships and vessels that is subject to different legal conventions. The two International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds— (International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC) and the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage (FUND) and the supplementary fund, which were established in 1992 as main vehicles of compensation for oil spills only apply to oil tankers.  In the case of MV Wakashio, which was a bulk carrier, the IOPC-FUND regime does not apply, which prevents Mauritius from putting any claims, despite being a signatory to the regime. None of the states in the South Asian region is signatories to the Supplementary Fund. The IOPC Fund would have, “provided liability and compensation of up to 203 million SDR (approx. 286 million USD) for this incident (also covers reinstatement of the environment).  The 2003 Supplementary Fund Protocol provides even higher liability and compensation, up to a maximum of 750 million SDR (around 1.05 billion USD) per incident but has not been ratified by Mauritius.” The convention that covers the MV Wakashio incident is the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001 (Bunker Convention) but the amount of liability is much lower than the IOPC-FUND regime. All three parties, Mauritius, Japan and Panama are signatories to the convention. However, in the wider IOR region, particularly South Asia, India is the only country which has ratified the convention

(See Table 3).

  The case of X-Press Pearl also raised a key issue of ‘Places of Refuge’.  The three-month-old vessel, before catching fire at the anchorage in Colombo, sought refuge and offloading in two ports, Hamad in Qatar and Hazira in India. The request was denied much like in the cases of Erika (1999) and Prestige (2001) tankers, which were also denied access to ports or refuge and ended up in major oil spill catastrophes. Efforts to prevent environmental disasters, particularly devastating oil spills from tankers, have incorporate multiple strategies, including vessel safety mandates, traffic control measures, artificial intelligence, and state inspection of vessels. While the preventive measures are critical, the case like X-Press Pearl shows that the dilemma of providing refuge will continue to remain a vexing one.

  Finally, the absence of shipping industry from the Paris Agreement is clearly a non-feasible long-term proposition. It is important that shipping sector embraces the net-zero targets and clean energy and technological alternatives in a systematic manner.