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Oil leaks from MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier, on Aug. 16 after it ran aground and broke into two parts off the coast of Mauritius.

STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Ayushi Sookharee remembers feeling stunned when she saw the striking images of the oil spill that spreads for kilometres along her home island’s southeastern shore.

“I was so used to seeing Mauritian water [being] different shades of blue. It was the most beautiful thing that we’re proud of here,” she said. “Just seeing that turned black, I was really shocked.”

The 1,000-tonne oil spill on Aug. 6 came nearly two weeks after the MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier bearing a Panama flag, ran aground on a coral reef near Mauritius – a small island country that is about 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar.

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While the volume was small compared with past disasters like the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska in 1989, the spill raised significant concerns because of its proximity to biodiversity hot spots such as the Blue Bay Marine Park, a wetland home to around 70 fish species and 40 coral types, and Île aux Aigrettes, a natural reserve with various species of animal and plants that are rare or endangered.

It also threatens many people’s livelihoods, since Mauritius relies on fishery and tourism – an industry already hammered by COVID-19 restrictions.

Had this been a normal year – one without a pandemic and an oil spill – Ms. Sookharee would have been busy preparing for a move to Canada for university. (She’s an incoming undergraduate student at University of Ottawa, but is studying remotely this fall because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions.) Instead, she has joined a spill-response volunteer group and become part of a significant grassroots movement, which also includes many Mauritian Canadians, that is mobilizing to combat the disaster and support the recovery from it.

In the week after the oil spill, Ms. Sookharee spent hours with other volunteers making hundreds of metres of booms, which are floating barriers that contain spilled oil.

Without access to industrial equipment, they made one-metre booms from net fabric, stuffing them full of sugar cane’s dry pulp remains, which can absorb oil, tying them with plastic bottles as floaters and hand-stitching them together to form longer booms.

Many people also cut off their own hair for boom-making, since it can soak up oil.

“You can see the urgency in that situation,” Ms. Sookharee said. “It was like, ‘I don’t care. It’s my hair. It will grow back then. Right now, we have to help the country.’”

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At top, volunteers unload water coolers on Aug. 14 at Bagatelle Shopping Mall in Mauritius. The coolers are used to make floating, oil-absorbent booms, like the one shown at bottom being deployed of the coast of Mahebourg.

Photos: Ziyaad Emambocus, FABIEN DUBESSAY/AFP via Getty Images

This sense of urgency was also felt in Canada, home to one of the world’s largest Mauritian diaspora communities with close to 16,000 people as of 2016.

This feeling hit hard for Deekshaa Kundun, a Mauritian in Montreal, because she was unable to help directly despite her skills as an environmental engineer. But as she started posting on social media regularly about the spill, she eventually became an administrator for WAKASHIO-Oil Spill-Canada – a Facebook group that allows the Mauritian community to share information and co-ordinate support campaigns. “It’s really the Mauritian diaspora, like there’s no leader in what we’re doing right now. Everyone is just helping how they can,” she said. “So that was helping Mauritians not feel helpless, empower them and give them a platform where they can vent their emotions.”

Ms. Kundun said the group originally worked on campaigns collecting hair and sourcing personal protective equipment for volunteers scooping out oil in shallow waters, but has now shifted to fundraising for Mauritian non-profit organizations working on wildlife and lagoon rehabilitation. They are also helping to amplify one Canadian fundraising campaign started by Pamela Pakium, president of the Canada Mauritius Cultural Association in Ottawa (CMCA). According to Ms. Pakium, the CMCA is fundraising to support up to three non-profit-led projects focusing on marine life rehabilitation. Choices will first be vetted by marine biology professors in Canadian universities and voted on by the Mauritian community in Canada.

The Canadian government is also following the oil spill situation “very closely,” according to an e-mailed statement from Global Affairs Canada. It added that Dr. Kenneth Lee – a leading expert from Fisheries and Oceans Canada who was involved in responding to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – is providing technical assistance via a network co-ordinated by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the intergovernmental agency for the association of Commonwealth countries that includes Canada.

Dr. Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, head of oceans and natural resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat, said he is optimistic about the cleanup effort. But he noted that experts in his network will be monitoring the levels of hydrocarbons and sediments from the spill and their long-term impact on the local ecology. He also pointed out this is the first major spill of low-sulphur fuel oil, in which the sulphur content is less than 0.5 per cent, compared with the old limit of 3.5 per cent, under International Maritime Organization regulations. The new standard seeks to reduce the level of sulphur oxide emissions, which can harm respiratory health and contribute to acid rain.

“There are no previous oil spills that we’ve been able to compare with on how this particular type of fuel oil will behave,” Dr. Hardman-Mountford said. “So that makes the research around those impacts over the longer term very important to understand.”

Thousands of demonstrators with face paint and flags in the Mauritian colours gathered in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, on Aug. 29 to denounce the government's response to the oil spill.

Photos: BEEKASH ROOPUN/L'Express Maurice/AFP via Getty Images

Amid this rush of activities, there is also widespread and rising anger among the public about the Mauritian government’s handling of the crisis. Many pointed out the MV Wakashio was stuck on the coral reef for days before it started leaking oil. They also say the government was slow to respond to the oil spill and hasn’t been transparent since it took over the cleanup effort. “There’s a huge outcry on the negligence of the government,” Ms. Kundun said. “It’s not even anger, it’s fury.”

Mauritius blames rough sea and unfavourable weather conditions in early August for failures to move the ship. Shortly after, the government said it arrested and charged the ship’s captain with endangering safe navigation, while seeking compensation from owner Nagashiki Shipping. But anger once again rose after reports of about 40 dead dolphins, with the public calling for an independent probe into their deaths. This groundswell of frustration culminated in a protest on Aug. 29, with tens of thousands of people marching through the streets on an island of just over 1.2 million.

In Canada, there was at least one solidarity rally in Mississauga planned by the Toronto Mauritian Association. “It’s to show people that we’re standing together in support of our community and we’re not standing for what is happening right now in our country,” said Joy Nursiah, who helped organize the rally.

And almost a month since the oil spill, the situation is still in flux, with a recent crash of a tugboat involved in the cleanup – which killed at least three sailors – adding to the tragedy. Mauritius has promised an inquiry into the accident, on top of investigations into the situation leading up to the MV Wakashio shipwreck.

“There’s a long way to go,” Ms. Nursiah said.

But ultimately, many said they found comfort in realizing that there is a strong Mauritian community through this crisis. “We’re a multicultural country, but still people tend to get lost in their lives and Mauritians never came together like this,” Ms. Kundun said. “But this time what we saw was unprecedented: people from all races and religions just going on the beach and cleaning. We’ve never seen that happen so there’s a lot of hope that maybe socially, we are quite closer together than we thought.”

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A cleanup crew collects contaminated algae on the Bois de Amourettes beach.

AFP via Getty Images

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