MV Solomon Trader Oil Spill: A Crude Attempt at Disaster Recovery

by | Apr 12, 2019 | Student blogs | 0 comments

This blog has been written by Christina Wilson on the MV Solomon Trader Oil Spill. It was judged to be one of two blogs which were amongst the highest calibre for the whole cohort in the Culture and Disasters Module (MSc International and Disaster Management program)

In the middle of the night on February 4th, 2019, a  Hong Kong registered bulk carrier ran aground in rough seas and high winds off the coast of Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands and begun to leak crude oil. The remoteness and inaccessibility of Rennell would have made any response difficult but the disaster was exacerbated by the impact of category two Cyclone Oma which made landfall almost simultaneously.



The Solomon Islands extend over 1450 kilometres in Pacific Melanesia, accounting for 28,785 squared kilometres of land, approximately the size of Maryland, USA. The Solomon Islands are considered to be a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) by the United Nations and extremely vulnerable to climate change and disasters. Collectively, the Solomon Islands are culturally distinct, surrounded by a diverse and complex coastal and marine ecosystem. The governance of the Islands, the isolation, the environment, and the influence of international actors, including UNESCO, are all important factors to consider when looking at this recent Rennell oil spill and the beginning of the recovery process.

Click on picture to watch video

But in this case, what is recovery? And with only the small population of Rennell Island affected, does this oil spill constitute a disaster worthy of international support and scrutiny? What should local, national, and international stakeholders be doing? What does recovery look like for the Rennellese?

Oil washing up on the shore

Picture: Oil washing up on the shore

This disaster is not an opportunity to ‘develop’, ‘build back better’, or ‘bounce forward’; it was an irresponsible industrial accident with grave consequences for the environment and the people of Rennell Island. As the response stage of this disaster winds down we must try to understand what recovery looks like in this compounded industrial accident, within the unique cultural context of the Solomon Islands.

MV Solomon Trader leaking oil

Picture: MV Solomon Trader leaking oil

Industrial Accident Recovery

Tierney and Oliver-Smith argue that recovery from technological or industrial accidents are “…more complicated because the effects of technological disasters are difficult to determine, leading to higher levels of stress, and because technological events are often followed by community conflict, litigation, and other stressors.” As the graph below demonstrates, there has been a steady decline in the number of oil spills internationally; however more attention is needed as the world has become increasingly ecologically vulnerable.

a graph of Number of Oil Tanker Spills

Graph: Number of Oil Tanker Spills

The environment surrounding a small-moderate spill similar to Rennell, off the coast of Australia, has not recovered more than four years later despite the best efforts of multiple stakeholders. It is essential for all stakeholders to acknowledge the potential longevity and cultural impacts of this spill, with a longitudinal assessment. Currently, it is unclear how deeply this disaster will affect the Rennellese; nevertheless, it is essential for stakeholders to look to previous disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon, to help create an effective recovery plan for Rennell and future oil related disasters

Cultural Context of a Solomon Island Recovery

It is likely that more than 80% of the Rennellese “… are wholly or partly dependent on subsistence farming and fishing”.The pre-disaster community was already dealing with declining fish stocks and general food insecurity as very little cassava, sugar cane, and other crops grow sustainably. Rennell Island was a fishing community reliant on the sea for individual livelihoods and the survival of their families. Yet nothing has been done to encourage their recovery or the cultural resilience of the fishing community post-oil spill. 

Post-disaster experience vs. pre-disaster lifestyle on Rennell Island

Picture: Post-disaster experience vs. pre-disaster lifestyle on Rennell Island

The Rennellese who have lost their livelihood can experience hopelessness and depression, along with ‘secondary trauma’ from litigation, as previous victims of oil spills have experienced. As Quarantelli believes, there must be a focus on the ripple or secondary effects of a disaster within the recovery process.A significant and sizeable portion of the population suffered adverse mental health effects after Deepwater Horizon, which could also be easily expected with a less commercial, more sustenance-fishing population like Rennell. Disaster survivors that have witnessed the ecological destruction of their land, sea, or livelihood have been known to seek clinical mental health services, and healthcare professionals need to be versed in the human impacts of ecological trauma.[v] It is also crucial to consider that post-oil spill intimate partner violence (IPV) can drastically increase. Focusing on community strength and resilience can not only help the collective but also the individual, as the more resilient a community the less affected an individual by disaster or loss of livelihood.

Rennell Island post-disaster

Picture: Rennell Island post-disaster

Social attachment to a physical location makes social recovery more difficult, and the drastically altered ecological environment, contamination, and economic pressures may force some Rennellese to relocate. The Solomon Islands have previously seen the successful relocation of two villages on Rongha Islands through adopting a pro-community and pro-active approach post-earthquake in 2007, where 80% of villages voluntarily relocated. Nevertheless, there is a call for a more formidable governance framework around relocation to protect human and land rights in the Solomon Islands. Furthermore, success may be limited by heterogeneity among Islanders. Any recovery in the Solomon Islands needs extensive contextualisation and localisation, along with sensitivity and understanding of the social capital of the affected area. This includes an understanding of the wantok system of ethnic, geographical, tribal, and linguistic groupings in Melanesia that allows for the promotion of social cohesion and equality. Any theoretical best practice of recovery must include the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of individual and communal identity, which is extremely important for the Rennellese.

Concluding the Clean Up and Fuelling the Future

Every successfully recovery begins with an effective response.  During this oil spill the Australian government was called in to provide response and recovery. There is a dire need for increased professionalisation in the disaster management and resilience sectors within the Solomon Islands, so this and future disasters can be managed by local actors.Indigenous knowledge helped many Solomon Islanders during past disasters, but this oil spill, a modern technological disaster, calls for innovation in mitigation to combat modern hazards. As the Solomon Islands, and the Pacific are ‘acutely vulnerable’ to climate change related disasters,more has to be done to mitigate industrial and technological disasters to prevent further strain on the already stretched system.



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