When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, it became the worst offshore oil spill in the history of the United States: 11 people died, 4 million barrels seeped into the Gulf of Mexico, and billions upon billions of dollars were paid out by BP in damages.
But it wasn’t just the scale of the disaster that was significant. Twitter, founded in 2006, was just a year away from hitting 100 million users, and information about the spill often moved with greater speed than the oil itself. For perhaps the first time in the internet age, the world was rapidly binging on devastating images of dolphins, sea turtles, and seabirds covered in black tar.
Since then, Wikipedia has recorded 77 major oil spills around the world, beamed live to our smartphones — most recently on July 25, as a Japanese-owned ship carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil crashed into a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius, leading to the country’s government declaring a "state of environmental emergency."
The ship, MV Wakashio, moved too close to a sanctuary for thousands of species of wildlife just off Pointe d'Esn. Already, 1,200 tonnes of oil have leaked into the Indian Ocean and over a dozen dolphins, smelling of fuel, have washed up dead on shore.
The internet has been ablaze with protest, as thousands of local volunteers have rushed to clean up the spill, and nation states including France and Japan have sent teams of specialists to help.
Britain is also among the countries offering support. It’s been doing this through the Department for International Development (DfID), using funding from its lifesaving UK aid budget to send vital expertise and resources to Mauritius.
At the request of the Mauritian government, three British ecology experts and one marine legal expert flew to help on Aug. 19, backed by further teams supporting remotely from the UK.
They will work alongside the local community to protect the species at risk and save the pristine coastline from the spill, while offering advice on how to safely dispose of the ship.
In addition, £10,000 has been committed to the Mauritius Wildlife Fund to back its work defending the local nature reserves, one of the richest marine areas for biodiversity on the planet. Its beauty is also pivotal to the Mauritian economy, firmly rooted in tourism.
“Without action, the devastating oil spill in Mauritius risks causing enormous damage to the environment and suffering to the fishing communities who rely on the coast for food and income,” said James Duddridge, the UK’s minister for Africa.
“I’m proud that the UK is sending experts who will play an important role in assessing the damage, supporting local communities, and protecting the environment for future generations,’ he added.
Mauritius arrested the captain of the boat that caused a massive 1,000+ ton oil spill, impacting fragile ecosystems. He was denied bail.— AJ+ (@ajplus) August 18, 2020
It is not clear what caused the crash, but scientists say it is the country's worst ecological disaster and may take decades to recover. pic.twitter.com/WmAtnq8eAz
DfID has been working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for Environmental and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) — a Defra agency specialising in marine science and technology — to send the scientists abroad.
The support comes just weeks before DfID is set to be scrapped at the beginning of September as part of a controversial merger with the FCO to become the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).
In July, a landmark cross-party report concluded that the “rushed” move would be “incredibly costly”, and potentially hurt the world’s poorest people most as UK aid spending could become less effective and less transparent.
The purpose of the UK aid budget is to end extreme poverty by tackling its root causes. In the context of environmentalism, it has a critical part to play: loss of biodiversity in Mauritius isn’t just a tragedy for sea life, it’s a crisis for the people who depend on it.
The oil spill in Mauritius on one of the world’s most biodiverse coastlines has been devastating. British marine & ecology experts, backed by #UKaid, are helping 🇲🇺 to restore & prevent further damage👇https://t.co/BrpN6bvF28— Anne-Marie Trevelyan #HandsFaceSpace (@annietrev) August 20, 2020