Bad to worse

Published: Tuesday 30 September 2003

-- The crisis that hit the Karachi port in Pakistan on July 27 has steadily gained catastrophic proportions. Tasman Spirit, the 24-year-old Greek tanker that ran aground off the Karachi coast, was carrying 67,000 tonnes of crude oil at the time of the accident (see: 'Huge slick', September 15, 2003). The vessel has so far spilled about 25,000 tonnes of crude oil into the Arabian Sea. The wreck of the tanker split into two earlier and is sinking deeper into the seabed. There are now fears of the rear section breaking and spilling more oil.

The Pakistan government's response to the worst oil spill in the country's history has increasingly come into question. The authorities, especially the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), have been accused of underplaying the crisis -- hiding facts and delaying the rescue operation. The recently formed 24-member committee to oversee the authorities' response has also drawn flak, as the panel comprises only government officials. The absence of technical experts, claim critics, would render it ineffective.

There is a demand for promptly making operational the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan as well, which is currently in draft form. The KPT has, meanwhile, sought consultants from the UK. The United Nations Environmental Programme has also dispatched an emergency response specialist to help assess the damage.

The slick is wreaking havoc on the area. Even as dead fish and crabs litter the beaches, there is the looming threat of stormy weather blowing oil towards the fragile mangrove forests and turtle nesting beaches along the Arabian Sea coast. Pakistan's fisheries industry may take a beating, with the EU likely to reimpose a ban on the country's seafood over non-adherence to standards. The livelihoods of small fisherfolk, too, are threatened as restrictions such as the prohibition on fishing in the Clifton area have come into force.

With strong winds driving the oil and fumes onto the shore, the health of the people living along the coast is also under threat. Nuzhat Ahmed, director, Centre of Excellence for Molecular Genetics, Karachi University, is apprehensive: "Our next generation is doomed. The vapours that one inhales from crude oil have BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene). All these components are carcinogenic."

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