Editorial: A tragic but avoidable disaster
Pakistan is about to confront a horrible oil spill in its waters and on its shores. When this happens, it will also be the single biggest environmental disaster in the country’s history. This is a fact, irrespective of what the Karachi Port Trust and the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency or PTV have to say on the matter. One thing is clear. This catastrophe in the offing was avoidable at both ends.
The Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC) contracted the Greece-registered ship Tasman Spirit to carry 60,000 tonnes of crude oil to the port of Kemari. This ship is unseaworthy and it was unseaworthy at the time the PNSC contracted it. In doing so, the PNSC flouted the law which says that no ship which is more than 15-year-old is to be considered seaworthy, hence cannot be contracted. Tasman Spirit, according to various estimates, is 26- to 30-year-old. But this is not all. The PNSC is also alleged to have ended up contracting the ship at rates higher than the international prices for this kind of haul. No prizes for guessing why someone should have entered a contract clearly unprofitable for the state of Pakistan. And when the bulk of the oil finally spills, as it sure would do, the state could end up with additional liabilities to the tune of Rs 2 billion or so. So this was one end where a government agency went bad.
The next is when the ship ran aground on July 26. The KPT and the SECP officials kept sitting on their haunches waiting for disaster to strike. Between then and the first week of August when the ship began to crack, the two agencies did nothing to get expert help from other countries that have the human and material resources to handle such emergencies. Precious time was lost thus. Now, of course, there is a rush to do things and, predictably, also to cover-up. KPT officials are claiming they have taken precautionary measures to ensure the spillage is minimum. But by their own estimates so far they have only been able to salvage 20,000 tonnes of crude which means 40,000 tonnes is still in the storage tanks of the tanker. The officials are also downplaying the extent of the disaster, saying the mangrove forests will not be affected. This is a lie. They will be affected and in a major way. All independent experts are agreed on that. There is also the possibility of the tanker catching fire, which would cause a huge explosion that could spell disaster for Clifton, Kemari, Seaview and other localities closer to the shore. Marine life has already been badly hit and thousands of dead fish and other marine animals have been washed ashore. Once the rest of the oil spills, the consequences for marine life could be even worse.
It is clear to all observers that we do not have the expertise to cope with something like this. Efforts that are now being made – getting chemicals to be sprayed to make the oil evaporate or settle down – and putting in place other arrangements are already too late. This is not to say that efforts should be abandoned but simply to assess the situation and respond to it in a more realistic fashion, including making necessary arrangements to evacuate certain populations if required. Reports talk of people in Seaview leaving after being subjected to the stench of the oil. Many are said to have developed breathing problems. It is important to correctly assess what can be done and what damage has not become inevitable. This is the only way of developing an appropriate response.
The government should also order a high-level inquiry into the whole incident and we would like to see heads roll. Also, the time has come to reform the KPT which is full of senior navy men “passing” time. This is no small-time bungling; its consequences, direct as well as indirect, will be felt for many years to come. It cannot be allowed to slip off the public radar screen as things normally do in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan Television and Radio should relay updates on the situation every 30 minutes to an hour so people can be kept abreast of new developments. And, for once, let’s have them relay the truth.
But while we are on the subject of governmental inefficiency, we will also offer a word on the flood situation. Government departments have proved utterly incompetent in handling the flood emergency situation in the coastal regions of Sindh where people would have had no succour whatsoever but for non-governmental organisations. Why is the Sindh government coming across as so impotent? Elementary, as Sherlock Holmes would say to Dr Watson, because there is no government in Sindh. The coxcomb-wearing motley crowd is a product of the agencies’ tactical shenanigans and is wilting under the weight of its own contradictions. The Sindh chief minister doesn’t know whether he is coming or going; the ruling PML-QA is a divided house; the smaller coalition partners are sick of the MQM’s excesses; the MQM is fighting its own pitched battles with the Karachi city government and its rival Haqiqi faction on the one hand and everyone else on the other. The Pakistan People’s Party can play no significant role as the opposition because the Makhdoom from Hala doesn’t like the Khuro from Larkana. Sindh is a political bedlam. And so on. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. *