The environmental catastrophe caused by the
grounded crude oil tanker Tasman Spirit close to the coastal waters of
Karachi, the biggest city of Pakistan, exposes the failure of the
shipping in Pakistan on the one hand and fears of similar disasters in
future on the other.
The vessel has already spilled over 26,000 tonnes
of the crude into the waters off the Karachi coast while officials
claimed to have salvaged obout 34,000 tonnes, including 20,000 tonnes
when the vessel split into half on the 14th of this month. By
Thursday, August 28 the storage tanks of the vessel still held some
9,000 tonnes of the crude the operation to salvage which was still
underway at the writing of these lines. The vessel is still spewing
the oil and the slick shows signs of spreading in other directions way
beyond the 10-kilometre stretch of the tarred Clifton Beach off the
posh Defence residential area.
As is, the oil lumps are continuously washing
ashore, blackening the beach, polluting the air with toxic fumes
sending scores to hospitals for treatment for respiratory disorders,
some of them acute. The beach has been completely sealed, the schools
remain closed, the masks are distributed to the residents who are also
asked to stay indoors and to keep their windows closed. And yet the
officials keep on insisting that 'all is well.' Obsession to deny the
obvious seem to have become the favourite recourse of the authorities
who failed to take appropriate measures to salvage the oil for a full
8 days after the tanker ran aground on the 27th of July.
Meanwhile a high level coordination committee set
up on the directive of President Pervez Musharraf and headed by Chief
Secretary of the Sindh province, Mutawwakil Qazi, has decided to
document the impact of the slick to meet such a situation in the
future. Observers fear that similar incidents can happen again due
primary to lack of any check about the condition of a vessel chartered
by the only national shipping line, the state-owned Pakistan National
Shipping Corporation, which was awarded a 10-year contract for
shipment of crude oil imports into the country.
The PNSC was awarded the contract last year when it
owned a single crude oil carrier, mt Jauhar, which was unceremoniously
sold for scrap by the Corporation at Guangzhou port, China early June.
The PNSC no more has a single crude oil tanker and yet it enjoys the
exclusive right to carry crude oil imports which totals around 5.5
million to 6 million tonnes per annum at present.
The fact that PNSC is entirely dependent on
chartered vessels to ship the entire quantity of the crude oil imports
makes the situation extremely precarious. For instance, the Tasman
Spirit was an older vessel than the PNSC's own mt Jauhar which was
over 25-year-old. The complete dependence on chartered vessels to
carry the entire quantity of crude oil imports poses many valid
questions about the sea-worthiness of the vessels over which local
authorities have no control or check whatsoever.
The failure of Pakistani shipping to add tonnage,
crude oil tankers in particular and bulk and container carriers in
general, has left the country threateningly dependent on foreign
shipping companies including the vessels chartered by the PNSC to
import the entire quantity of the crude. Even the Pakistan Merchant
Marine Policy-2001 has failed to attract the private sector investment
in the shipping sector.
One of the major detriment to private sector
investment in the shipping sector, particularly in the induction of
tankers, was the awarding of the 10-year contract to the PNSC itself. PAGE
highlighted the concerns of a prospective investor willing to induct a
tanker in the national fleet within a month provided he gets a
guaranteed share of the crude oil cargo. His enthusiasm, however,
completely waned when he heard that the Ministry of Petroleum awarded
a 10-year contract for the import of crude oil to the PNSC.
The fact that the PNSC was awarded the 10-year
contract merely allowing it to function as a middlemen not only
discouraged the private investment in the shipping sector leaving the
crude oil imports in the hands of foreign shipping lines. That also
explains the lack of interest on the part of the private investors to
induct the much needed tonnage in the national merchant marine.
Such heavy dependence on chartered vessels for
transporting the entire quantity of the crude oil without with no
local participation whatsoever poses risks of similar devastating
incidents in the years to come. Revising the contract and offering a
share of it to the private operators registered here in Pakistan would
help induct not only the much needed tonnage but it will also ensure
that the vessels are in good operational conditions so that such
mishaps can be avoided in future. Failure to attract private sector
participation in the shipping sector would leave the country entirely
dependent on foreign operators resulting in similar incidents in
future. The spill should be seen as the failure of the national
shipping more than anything else.