Karachi falls environmental hazards

By Syed M. Aslam
Aug 18 - 24, 2003 

For a full 18 days, the Karachi Port Trust, the maintainer and manager of the biggest seaport of the country, and other related agencies tried to downplay the severity of the looming threat that the Greece-registered crude oil tanker Tasman Spirit posed to the environment and public health. Instead of taking measures to contain the spill such as booms, large floating sponge used for soaking up large quantities of liquid including oil, to lessen the impact of the devastation, the officials chose to falsely allay the public fear by resorting to downplay the impact.

Finally on August 14, the Independence Day, the authorities announced the stoppage of the 'salvage' operation calling the breakup of the grounded tanker imminent. Warnings were also issued to the public to stay away from the beaches, wear masks and sun-glasses and avoid any contact with the oil. The law-enforcement authorities closed the 14-kilometre coastline to the public and over 1,000 policemen were deployed to close the roads leading to the beaches.

The tanker was loaded with over 60,000 tons of crude oil of which, the authorities claimed, over 20,000 tons was emptied. However, no photographs of any such transfer were released to the Press by the authorities. Even if the claim is true, and one should not be held responsible for entertaining suspicion about the claim from the authorities who mislead the people about the looming catastrophe in the first place, the tanker still had enough crude to qualify for one of the major oil spills anywhere in the world. What's even worse is that it would take not months but years to clean-up the mess.

Despite the attempts to downplay its severity and the impact, the disaster is feared to rank the top oil spills anywhere in the world. For instance, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska spilling around 38,800 tons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The Tasman Spirit is holding the same or even more quantity of the crude oil to match the Exxon Valdez spill which was the worst spill in the US history. The 10.9 million gallons of the crude spilled by Exxon Valdez spilled affected about 1,300 miles of shoreline and took years to clean. What makes the authorities to keep misleading the people that the 40,000 tons spill here would cause minimal threat to environment and human health and would take only weeks to clean?

The tall claims look all the more ludicrous as the authorities took no visible measures to contain the spill from the leaking tanker for over 2 weeks to lessen the impact. No oil boom net was used around the grounded tanker to soak the oil. The tendency to down-play the impact of the disaster and a facade of all-is-well attitude was meant to mislead the people about the truth. The important questions that should be asked are: what containment measures did the authorities take, was any assessment was made about the impact and the potential impact zones, were weather conditions and the sensitivity of the region were considered. Karachi definitely qualifies for a sensitive region for a oil spill of such huge quantity because it puts the public health of its 15 million people at grave risks.


March 16, off Portsall, France: wrecked supertanker Amoco Cadiz spilled 68 million gallons, causing widespread environmental damage over 100 miles off Brittany coast world's largest tanker disaster.

The breaking up of Tasman Spirit and the feared discharge of the remaining 40,000 tons of crude oil would be a catastrophe by any standard. The world's largest tanker disaster was the wreckage of supertanker Amoco Cadiz on March 16, 1978 spilling 68 million gallons of oil off Portsall, France causing heavy environmental damage over 100 miles. Another major incidents include 13,000 tons of heavy diesel oil by tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in December 1999 and of some 72,000 tons of crude oil by tanker Sea Empress near the port of Milford Haven in Wales in 1996. In January 1993, Braer grounded south of the Shetland Island, off the north coast of Scotland, spilled 85,000 tons of oil. In December 1992, a ship called the Aegean Sea spilled 80,000 tons of crude near the port of La Coruna in Spain. In May 1991, the ABT Summer leaked oil after an explosion off Angola spilling 260,000 tonnes and The Haven spilled more than 50,000 tons of oil off Genoa in Italy in April 1991.

However, it was the disaster caused by spilling of 13,000 tons of heavy diesel oil by Erika led to a change in the laws governing the shipment of oil by tanker. The reality close to home should also necessitates for such laws here in Pakistan to better protect the environment and the public health.

The indifference of the authorities to contain the spill has increased the threat even further. The authorities have announced to initiate a cleaning operation and once again have tried to downplay the impact predicting normalcy within weeks. While a variety of techniques can be used to help remove spilled oil from the environment none of them are short, particularly to clean up the massive spill. For instance, in the case of Exxon Valdez the oily beaches were washed with hot water, which is deemed to cause more damage to the natural ecosystems. Other techniques include skimming and vacuuming oil, as well as using chemical dispersants to break it up.

As is, the signs of the inherent threats that the spill poses to the public health have become all too evident. There are reports of respiratory and breathing problems and a number of people have already been admitted in the hospital. Talking to PAGE, the former president of Pakistan Medical Association, Dr Tipu Sultan, expressed fears the spread of epidemic in areas closer to the beach and particularly affecting those already suffering from asthma. "If toxic fumes are inhaled it damage the lungs and impair the workings the central nervous system. Prolonged inhalation of the fumes and its absorbtion into the blood vessels would also affect all other vital organs including lever, kidney, cornea, and coronary vessels."

He said that the spill would have a long-term impact on human health and token measures such as the wearing of masks and sun-glasses are more token than serious attempts necessary to tackle a disaster. "Most of all those responsible for the disaster should be brought to the book."