Karachi: oil spill catastrophe

Posted on 15 August 2003

A major environmental disaster is in the offing as the Greek registered oil tanker MT Tasman Spirit leaks off the coastal belt of Karachi.
Karachi, Pakistan - A major environmental disaster is in the offing as the Greek registered oil tanker MT Tasman Spirit leaks off the coastal belt of Karachi. The Tasman Spirit, a single-hulled tanker carrying 67,000 tonnes of crude oil destined for the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC), ran aground near the Karachi port on 27 July. Three attempts were made to tow it away, but failed. Cracks appeared in the hull on 14 August. There are four tanks in the Tasman Spirit. One contained 20,000 tonnes of oil which have been saved. The second tank, containing about 12,000 tonnes of oil, burst open, and all its oil leaked into the sea. The remaining tanks contain 37,000 tonnes of oil and were reported to be intact on 15 August. The tanker has now cracked into two pieces. The oil spill has spread to the 14-km coastline of the Clifton Beach, Karachi. According to the major newspapers in the country, the spill could spread to cover the area of Port Qasim and the 40-km long belt of the Karachi coastline if immediate efforts are not made to contain the oil. The government of Pakistan has declared an emergency situation. A 200–300 metre area around the ship has been prohibited from movement of boats. The ship is located 1 km from the beach and the wind is moving eastwards towards the Indus Delta. Two main beaches of Karachi, Clifton and Sea View, are badly affected, with puddles of oil clearly visible on the shoreline. As the ship is very close to the shore, the smell of the oil is very strong. There is an element of threat to humans as well, due to the pungent air borne fumes. So far the spill has not spread to the turtle nesting beach and nearby mangrove swamps, 4 km away from the coastline. If an onshore wind develops the spill could spread to the mangrove forests. This would severely damage the forests, as oil chokes their extensive aerial root system, in effect suffocating the trees. Rescue efforts are under way by the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) and a C-130 aircraft is en route from Singapore with 10 tonnes of chemical dispersant. Concerns have been raised that the relevant agencies in Pakistan currently lack adequate equipment and manpower to handle such a situation. In reality, although several relatively minor oil spills have occurred in the recent past, inadequate attention has been paid to the effective implementation of a contingency plan. “The Karachi Port Trust (KPT) has developed in an Oil Spill Contingency Plan in this regard, but still has a long way towards its full implementation. The Maritime Security Agency (MSA) has also developed a draft marine oil spill contingency plan, but it is yet to be finalized, documented and implemented,” remarked Hammad Naqi Khan, Director Environmental Pollution Unit, WWF–Pakistan. “Such an accident will leave long-lasting adverse impacts on marine life, coastal plants, and wildlife. Toxics and persistent chemicals including hydrocarbons can accumulate in food chains, resulting in impairment of the reproductive system and damage to the renal or nervous system. For example, ingestion of oil causes intestinal disorders, renal or liver failure. Egg laying in seabirds may be depressed,” added Hammad Naqi Khan. The short-term environmental effects noted so far around the 14-km long Clifton beach are contamination of shore communities, death of fish stocks and crabs, and oil coating the wings of birds. Little knowledge is currently available on the direct effects of oil on local fish stocks. Fish eggs and fish larvae are particularly vulnerable to the toxic components of oil as they occur in the surface layers of water and will be in direct contact with the spilt oil. “Loss of critical species on the shoreline following the spill may lead to changes in marine habitats and communities which will take years to recover,” remarked Dr Ejaz Ahmad, Deputy Director General, WWF–Pakistan. WWF–Pakistan is playing an advisory role in this grave situation. Richard Garstang, WWF–Pakistan’s Conservation Advisor and Manager of the Federal Government’s Pakistan Wetlands Project, pointed out that the spill poses direct threat to at least two species of endangered marine turtles, and five species of dolphins or porpoises. The marine turtles breed year round on the beaches of Sandspit and Hawks Bay and tend to concentrate close to the shoreline in large numbers. The spill has coincided with the start of the annual peaks in breeding activity for both the Green and Olive Ridley Turtles. The marine mammals that are most vulnerable are those like the humpback dolphins that regularly feed in the shallow water off the Karachi’s beaches. For more information: Dr Ejaz Ahmad Deputy Director General, WWF–Pakistan Tel: +92 021 4544791 92 E-mail: wwfkhi@khi.compol.com Amjad Aslam Head Communications, WWF–Pakistan Tel: +92 042 5862360 or 5882069 E-mail: aaslam@wwf.org.pk
The Tasman Spirit, off Karachi harbour.
© A. Aslam / WWF-Pakistan