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    Understanding the impact of multiple stressors: how COVID-19 and the Wakashio oil spill affected coastal community resilience in Mauritius

     

    Josheena Naggea, Doctoral Candidate, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University, USA

    Amandine de Rosnay, Sustainability Consultant, Dynamia Associates & Developers

     

    While the world faces the first major global pandemic in over 100 years, Mauritius also suffered the worst ecological disaster in its history. On the 25th of July 2020, the Japanese owned, Panama flagged vessel, MV Wakashio bulk carrier tanker wrecked off the island’s southeast coast, spilling around 1000 tonnes of fuel oil along more than 30km of the south-east coast of Mauritius two weeks later. The region is known for its artisanal fishing villages and concentration of ecologically sensitive areas and nature reserves. This incident which occurred while the island was still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected coastal communities who were active in the fisheries and tourism sectors. To explore the impact of these compounding shocks on coastal communities, between September 2020 to January 2021 our team undertook a study involving seven community meetings attended by 120 community members, 22 key informant interviews and 792 random household surveys across the oil spill impacted sites and reference sites [1]. Our findings show that the oil spill further eroded the resilience, i.e. the capacity to recover quickly from shocks, of vulnerable populations on the southeast coast of the island who are highly dependent on fisheries and tourism for their livelihood. It remains an open question the extent to which some of these households will recover lost income as the economy opens up, but the road to recovery is likely to be complex for those who have accumulated debt, exhausted personal savings and sold productive assets such as boats.

     

    It has been over a year since the devastating oil spill in Mauritius, one of the worst environmental disasters the country has faced. While the oil spill clean-up operations have officially been completed and the visual horror of the oil in our lagoon has faded, communities are still feeling the brunt of the double whammy of COVID-19 and the oil spill, particularly for households who had been relying on small scale fishing and tourism.

    Study Overview

    To better understand the financial impact of the compounding COVID-19/oil spill shocks and the coping strategies developed by the affected coastal communities, the research team gathered qualitative and quantitative data to empirically assess socio-economic impacts. This study consisted of 792 in-person household surveys, 22 key informant interviews, and seven community meetings held between September 2020 to January 2021. The household surveys were conducted across 12 oil spill-impacted sites and four reference sites (in the northern and western coast of Mauritius) at Village Council Area (VCA) level [2].

    Significant Financial Impacts on Households

    The financial impact of the COVID-19 lockdown/oil spill shocks is substantial. Our results indicate that post the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, reference households experienced an average reduction in earnings of 41% compared to their earnings prior the shock, while oil spill sites households experienced an average reduction in earnings of 48%.

    By November 2020, whilst earnings in the reference sites had partially recovered with a reduction in earnings prior to the lockdown up to an average of -32%; earnings in the spill sites continued to decline reaching an average reduction in household earnings of 57%. Those most affected, such as those involved in seasonal labour, fishing and gleaning, saw a decline in household earnings of up to 71%, while the reference sites began to recover from the effects of COVID-19 from June to December 2020.

    In contrast, the sites associated with the oil spill show a continuous decline across the assessed socio-economic indicators, suggesting that vulnerable respondents in this area will likely struggle to recover financially. It remains an open question the extent to which some of these households will recover lost income once the economy opens up, but the road to recovery is likely to be complex for those who have accumulated debt, exhausted personal savings and sold productive assets such as boats.

    Poverty Traps

    Beyond the financial impact, the study uncovered evidence of worsening compounding factors including the psychological impact of the double shocks, food insecurity, reduced school attendance, health impact and unequal distribution of assistance. Respondents have also shared about a ‘loss of the future’ which is an inability to see a way out for themselves.

    The combination of these factors as well as spent savings and taking on debt, has sent families back years in terms of accrued financial security and may cause some to fall into long-term poverty traps. This in turn leads to the long-term fragmentation of the social fabric of the region, should there be no remediation. Without local assistance and support, coastal residents will continue to suffer from the combined impacts of both incidents.

    Gendered Impacts

    In the oil spill-impacted sites, the compounding crises of the pandemic and the oil spill have highlighted an important policy gap: the needs of women from coastal communities often go unnoticed. Our meetings with community groups and community leaders revealed that hundreds of people fish for subsistence. These subsistence fishers are not formally recognised through any registration process. Women especially tend to be largely unregistered artisanal fishers who walk along the coast at low tide to forage for food sources: shellfish like “Tek” (Donax spp.), “Mangouak” (Isognomon spp.), “Betay” (Trachycardium spp., Gafrarium spp., Asaphis spp., Tellina spp.), “Bigorneau” (Littorina spp.), “Gono” (Pleuroploco trapezium) as well as invertebrates like octopus, and a variety of fish, a  process known as gleaning. Of the 1,902 registered fishers in Mauritius[3], only 35 are women. And of these 35, more than 50% are located in the oil spill-affected region. Although applicants of fisher licenses were eligible for the Rs10,200 monthly oil-spill compensation, unregistered fishers and gleaners who have not previously applied for a registration license failed to receive such financial support. This has led to not only economic loss but also food insecurity within their households, and an emotional loss of a way of life from not being able to glean anymore. Previously, they could generally just “catch their food from the sea” right before a meal, but since the oil spill, they were having to spend more money to buy canned goods and other less nutritious food.

    Although there is an equal to larger number of unregistered fishers compared to registered ones, fisherwomen and gleaners are overwhelmingly unregistered and far less likely to be recognised. As such, a system that does not account for unregistered, subsistence fishers inadvertently accentuate gender inequalities. Following the study period, we have been informed that gleaners were back to collecting mollusks in the oil spill impacted areas, which raises concerns about the safety of consuming sessile seafood from such areas.

    The gendered impact of the pandemic has been highlighted in the Gendered Voices Issues 1-4 by UNDP Mauritius. COVID-19 has the potential to accentuate the feminisation of poverty in Mauritius with 11% of the poorer segment of the population constituting of women living under the poverty line, compared to 9.6% males in the same category. Women are not just highly represented in sectors most impacted by the pandemic (hospitality and tertiary sectors), but are also often the de-facto carers for children who are unable to attend school, forcing many to either reduce their working hours or to become unemployed as they shoulder their caregiving responsibilities. The report concludes that COVID-19 could exacerbate inequalities between men and women. Both COVID-19 and the oil spill impact have demonstrated the dangers of gender-neutral policies, which exclude women from receiving relief, and have exposed vulnerabilities embedded in our systems and economies.

    Coping mechanisms

    We asked respondents about the different coping strategies employed to deal with financial difficulties and food insecurity following both events.

    Coping strategies across all coastal residents have included:

    • Engaging in new economic activities, usually in the daily labour sector, with skippers and fishers being hired by the oil spill clean-up crews
    • Spending savings
    • Taking on more debt
    • Selling productive assets (boats, motors, cars, etc.)
    • Relying on cheaper food, decreasing protein intake, especially fish
    • Increased dependency on the generosity of family and friends

    Out of those who faced financial difficulties, 70% of respondents from spill sites used their savings compared to 24% from reference sites. Respondents mentioned spending the savings they had accumulated to build a house or buy land. Other strategies used in the spill sites included reduced spending on non-essential items, the accumulation of more debt, and selling off productive assets (boats, engines, motorbikes etc.).

    Figure 1 Coping strategies used by households as a response to financial difficulties 

    From the households facing issues with food insecurity, the most common approach was:

    (1) to rely on less preferred and less expensive food, with respondents commenting that they were eating more vegetables/canned food and less meat or fish to save money, with 64% respondents using that approach in spill sites compared to 16% in reference sites;

    (2) 63% of respondents started backyard gardening in spill sites vs 22% in reference sites.

    (3) 22% from spill sites and 6% from reference sites relied on help from friends and family; and

    (4) 20% from spill sites reduced meal portions compared to 3% from reference sites.

     

    Figure 2 Coping mechanisms used as a response to lack of food access

     

    Assistance

    Out of respondents who required assistance, more respondents (58%) from the oil spill sites received assistance than the reference sites (35%). Most of the assistance received was in the form of monetary compensation and food packs across all sites, with over 50% of respondents in oil spill sites receiving some form of external assistance. In most cases, the majority of assistance came from government entities, except for the distribution of food packs where NGOs played an important role.

    Following the Wakashio oil spill, the Government through the MV Wakashio Assistance and Support Cell offered different categories of allowances to affected persons: (i) a Solidarity Grant, plus Bad Weather Allowance of Rs 425 daily where applicable for registered fishers and applicants of fisher registration (ii) a Solidarity Grant of Rs 10,200 for fishmongers (iii) Rs 15,300 (Solidarity Grant and Self-Employed Assistance Scheme of Rs 5,100) for self-employed persons in Pleasure Craft; and Rs 20,400 (Solidarity Grant and Wage Assistance Scheme of Rs 10,200) for workers in Pleasure Craft as from August 2020.  In order to benefit as a fisher, a beneficiary must show a valid proof of registration. Existing applicants of the fishing registration cards in the impacted region were also eligible for the Rs 10,200 monthly package. Other forms of assistance included the Business Continuity Grant to provide financial assistance towards maintenance costs and/or running expenses e.g. utilities, waiving of administrative fees, waiving off refund of wage assistance paid under the Government Wage Assistance Scheme, loan and lease moratorium, protection from asset repossessions by banks and  financial institutions so as to avoid loss of assets and closure of businesses,  express loan assistance to help businesses remain afloat and prepare for recovery or to support reorientation towards alternative activities and duty free facilities to provide incentives for investment in support of recovery

    There is a clear demarcation in the level of satisfaction of the respondents with respect to the help received from the government for the pandemic in 2020 versus the government’s response to the oil spill. Respondents were mainly satisfied with the response to the pandemic, but mostly dissatisfied with the oil spill response. A number of issues were highlighted, including (1) a slow response at the start of the spill, (2) increased distrust due to lack of scientific information about response measures and environmental impacts of the disaster (3) not being eligible for financial support following the oil spill where impacts were deemed indirect or due to COVID-19 (e.g. guesthouses, small businesses)

    Policy Implications

    Our study has shown the need for a stronger gender focus in supporting communities impacted by COVID-19 and the oil spill, the need for long term environmental monitoring, along with communities whose livelihoods depend on those resources, and continued monitoring of physical and psychological health impacts of residents in the oil spill affected sites. We list below some key recommendations:

     

    Acknowledgement

    The authors wish to thank the Tiffany & Co. Foundation for funding this study through the NGO, Wildlife Conservation Society. We especially thank Dr Tim McClanahan, Dr Nyawira Muthiga and Dr Jennifer O’Leary for their invaluable contribution in the conceptualization of the study, Prof. Krish Seetah and Dr Pricila Iranah for their contribution in the study design and Thierry Le Breton for his invaluable help in conducting this study. We also thank Professor Larry Crowder, Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai and Dr Natalie Ban for their support with the survey design. We extend our gratitude to the UN Resident office and the UNDP-GEF- Small Grants Programme for helping us reach out to key contacts to understand the responses to the oil spill. We acknowledge the support of Dr Pramod Kumar Chumun, Dr Ranjeet Bhagooli, Vasisht Seetapah and Sandy Monrose during field visits in the aftermath of the oil spill. We thank all our field assistants without whom this work would not have been possible. We would like to specially acknowledge all our interviewees and survey respondents who offered their time and partook in the study despite their challenging circumstances.

    Link to the full report here.

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).

    Main Photo by International Maritime Organization on Flickr


    [1] The reference sites were sites which were only impacted by COVID-19 but not the oil spill and are situated in regions where communities also rely heavily on artisanal fishing and tourism.

    [2] The reference sites were sites which were only impacted by COVID-19 but not the oil spill and are situated in regions where communities also rely heavily on artisanal fishing and tourism.

    [3] Mauritius Fishermen Cooperative Federation Ltd, 2019

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