SPILL EXPOSES FAILURE OF PAK SHIPPING

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

By SYED M. ASLAM
Sep 01 - 07, 2003 

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.