Mar 14 - 20, 2011

While degradation of environment in and around the country's busiest Karachi's seaport has been brought several times into the notice of Karachi Port Trust (KPT), all intimations seem to fall on deaf ears since port handling and operational facilities are deteriorating with each passing day.

The loading and unloading of bulk cargo is brought into the question often because no proper care is given to prevent contamination of food items by the dirty bulk cargoes such as of coal at the port.

Karachi port handles around 60 per cent of the national imports and exports and therefore happens to be the leading port amongst Port Qasim and Gwadar port. The port sees daily tons of dry and dirty bulk unloading and loading. Karachi port handles about 25.45 million tons dry cargo including 1.2 million TEUs (twenty feet equivalent). Karachi port's throughput is almost triple that of second Port Qasim.

Old and life-threatening methods of loading, unloading and discharging of dirty bulk from and to trucks through cranes are common in practice at Karachi port, spreading particles in the atmosphere and on the sea. When it comes to coal, potential threats to human, marine, and avian lives become rather serious as a result of its non-mechanised handling.

Environment management is assuming the key importance in the operations of the modern ports around the world, and environment protection agencies are now more concerned about how ports handle dirty bulk cargoes with ensuring zero or tolerable pollution.

Modern port infrastructure is addressing the impacts on human and ecosystem of dirty bulks transported to and from berths and warehouses, through quite imitable means. Along with this, shift of loads to peer port(s) within a country is also becoming a popular mitigation measure world over to cope up with the environmental problems.

Usually, coal ships are moored at five berths at East Wharf at Karachi port aka KPT (Karachi Port Trust). Pakistan imported approximately 4.5 million tons of coal during 2010. Only Karachi port accounts for coal handling of three million tons. From the wharf up to the dumping ground or store known as Groyne Yard, densely populated localities of Kemari and Jackson are located. Coals are usually spilled over from truckloads on the roads and shorelines.

Sometimes, the berths become so occupied that bulk cargoes, no matter of their being coal, oil seeds, and wheat, are loaded, unloaded, and discharged at the same berths or two different berths but at a dangerously closer distance. The outcome may self-explanatory; what would happen when coal dust manages to penetrate into dry bulks of wheat or edible oil seeds? It has been proved that contamination of edible oilseeds by coal dust is a prime cause of cancer as this makes edible oil carcinogenic.

Located at the tail end of Karachi, Kemari embraces a significant number of oil and chemical terminals as well. Hundreds of truckloads of coal, chemicals, and other substances are loaded and unloaded daily without safety and health precautions. They pose risk to both human and environment.

Environment protection NGOs and others concerned about heaps of coal piled up in the yard often bring into question coal handling at KPT. Though KPT rejects the allegation of open trucks used to carry dirty bulk or coal, yet there have appeared several reports of negligence committed during the transportations.

Labours engaged in menial jobs have direct exposure to improperly handled powdered and coarse coal. Cloud of coal dust is visible in the area close to the yard. Coal dusts put on thick layers on everything in the nearby localities and embers in trucks pose 'coal dust explosion hazard'.

It is interesting to note that importer or exporter ought to obtain a no-objection certificate from environment protection agency (EPA) for their consigned materials accumulated at the port. However, it is said sometimes NOC is issued to materials non-compliant with environment standards. In fact, sometimes un-lifted materials, because of their non-biodegradable nature, prove extremely dangerous for lives at the port and in marine.

Importers avoid lifting coals from Kemari yard for two main reasons. First, it is a cost-effective dumping ground for them. Secondly, if there somehow springs up a need of obtaining an NOC from Sindh environment protection agency, this is considered 'not a big deal with palm greasing', a source in EPA told this scribe on the condition of anonymity.

Why is not EPA taking stern action against KPT for causing serious danger to environment and people living near the yard?

One gasps for fresh air while in the area. With a daily exposure to such an asphyxiating atmosphere, how local people would be surviving is anybody's guess. It is reported locals are fast developing respiratory ailments such as asthma and tuberculosis. Even KPT's workers could not escape health implications as a result of exposure to coal dusts and other dirty bulks.

There is no denying the fact that KPT has taken few mitigation measures to reduce the environmental impacts of dirty bulk. For example, it planted more than hundred trees to offset the impact of carbon emissions. Particularly, it has taken measures specific to minimise health hazards arising out of coal transportation. A 1.39 kilometre railway track constructed in January this year was such a measure. In addition to this, the port authority is now ensuring water sprinkling during coal unloading. However, what is least bothered is drainage of water. It is said sprinkled water is drained out in to the sea without recycling.

Analysts say Karachi port is bearing concentration of activities more than its capacity. More than 50 terminals pertaining to chemicals, molasses, ethanol, petroleum products are located in the area.

The potential growth rate of coal, cement, and clinker handling at the port is projected at 10 per cent per annum. There is obviously a need to halve its burden of cargo-handling operations with some other comparable quaysides.

Saying the port needs further expansion to deal with the increasing trade volumes is true. The prospective project by KPT of dedicated coal jetties connected to Lyari Express Way is really overambitious because of its underlying cost of $400 million. Its feasibility was prepared back in 2004. Practically, government cannot afford such capital-intensive project without private sector's participation. Interestingly, private parties are more eager to invest in developments of Port Qasim.

Bin Qasim Port is expected to have the Pakistan's first completely automated coal, cement, and clinker terminal with overall handling capacity of 8 million tons per annum. What makes this $173 million terminal project different is that the jetty with capacity to accommodate two ships of 75,000 DWT (dead weight tonnage) simultaneously, is planned to be connected through a 2.5 km convenor belts with silos. Port Qasim and Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT) have signed the implementation agreement in November last year for the project, which is expected to be operational by start of 2014.

The Port Qasim's vicinity is sparsely populated near National Highway. Because of space and mechanisation, ships can turn around at a faster speed at the port. Shifting of coal and fertiliser cargo handling to Port Qasim can improve the overall operational efficiency and mitigate environmental risks associated with the handling of dirty bulks. Its closeness to Pakistan Steel Mills makes it also a cost-effective port for importing iron ore.