Pakistan’s Coastal Pollution Dilemma

The subjects of Climate Change and Environmental Degradation continue to make headlines around the world, yet we in Pakistan remain blissfully unaware of its ramifications. To most of us Climate Change is an alien concept, while environmental pollution is limited to the heaps of garbage we see piled up in various nooks and crannies all over the city. It’s ironical that the city managers continue to grapple with such basic issues as the safe disposal of waste well into the 21st century. Candid discussions, leading to resolution of Pakistan’s festering coastal pollution nightmare, needs to be undertaken with the urgency it deserves. Any such dialogue has to perforce start off with the amazing stretch of intermeshing creeks fondly remembered as an ecological paradise, the Indus Delta, as well as the huge megacity of Karachi, which keeps intruding on its western periphery.

Though coastal pollution has its primary roots on land, it is so multi-faceted and wide-ranging in nature that it’s full implications are difficult to grasp and dangerous to ignore. There are literally tens of millions of tons of domestic waste, raw sewage, hospital discards, industrial effluents and agricultural nutrients being generated in the country every day, all of which, in the absence of any safe disposal arrangements, finds its way to the rivers, creeks and canals, where they not only pollute the country’s limited sources of drinking water, but also bring innumerable diseases in its wake.

Let’s now turn our exclusive focus to the coast, which forms the subject of this paper. The coast provides an interface between the land and the sea; it’s a zone in which both terrestrial and oceanic forces are at work. The coastal region, of which the Indus Delta is the most prominent, is not only plagued by similar pollution problems, but has to surmount difficulties of a more severe and sinister nature.

The Indus Delta used to be historically interspersed with natural river courses, which, braided with smaller tributaries, formed a natural drainage system. The one thing needed to keep these natural waterways alive was a regular flow of water downstream. While the current requirement of Indus water flowing into the delta has been estimated to be around 35 million acre feet, the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord guarantees the release of 10 MAF only. In actuality though, hardly 2 MAF makes it to the sea, that too irregularly, resulting not only in widespread deforestation of freshwater mangroves, but also in the unhindered intrusion of the sea into the hinterland. This has not only caused irreparable damage to the ecology and biodiversity of the region, its impact on the local economy has been nothing short of disastrous. What were once thriving agricultural, fishing and trading communities now lie dispersed and in dire straits. Instead of allowing the pollutants and saline laden water smooth access to the sea, the unhindered sea actually pushes them back into the delta to be absorbed into the subsoil.

The huge megacity of Karachi, sitting astride the western extremity of the Indus Delta, plays no small part in coastal pollution. The unchecked and unprecedented level of pollution in the city’s urban environment results in unimaginable amounts of waste products through domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural and hospital sources being unceremoniously dumped into the Arabian Sea, as if it was some kind of a giant garbage bin. The oceans have always been central to the sustenance of life on earth but there is certainly a limit to what it can take. The world would have been an intolerable place to live in had not the oceans been absorbing a large part of the billions of tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that man has been regularly releasing into the atmosphere. Land generated pollution too, in the form of solid waste, raw sewage, industrial effluents and agricultural nutrients have resulted in creating dead zones, thereby causing colossal damage to marine habitat and coral reefs, which form the ocean’s, and in turn the land’s, life support system. The most destructive impact by far is through the disposal of plastic items, something that takes up to 450 years to degrade.

Karachi harbour and its environs are particularly hard hit. Owing to gross inadequacy of the city’s waste disposal system and absence of waste products treatment plants at its industrial zones, all pollutants have no recourse but to find its way into the sea. It is disconcerting to see how the harbour, where till the 1970s at least, dolphins and fishing tackles were a common sight, has deteriorated to an extent that not even a single National Environmental Quality standard can be met. The extraordinary levels of toxic elements like chromium, lead, chlorides and sulphates, coupled with the low conductivity experienced, forms a corrosive mix that apart from decimating all types of marine life, whittles away at the submerged port infrastructure and causes extensive damage to ships berthed inside the harbour. This accelerated corrosion of ships’ hulls as well as seawater-based machinery and pumps has a huge impact on naval vessels, reducing their lifespan by as much as 50% and drastically enhancing their preservation and maintenance costs. Presence of solid waste and plastic bags in the water tends to choke seawater intakes resulting in more frequent machinery failures.

An obvious solution, towards which sufficient thought has not been given as yet, is to invest in the setting up and maintenance of sewage treatment plants for the safe disposal of waste. Three such plants with a treatment capacity of 151 MGD each had admittedly been installed, but which now serve as standing testaments to official apathy. The Sindh Government, with the active backing of the Pakistan Navy, one of the worst sufferers of this neglect, is pursuing a proposal with the Federal Government for improving sanitary conditions on an equal sharing basis. The project envisages a complete rehabilitation of the plants in question as well as capacity enhancement of the one catering to the Lyari Basin area, which happens to be the major offender insofar as Karachi harbour pollution is concerned. It was the pressure exerted by the Supreme Court appointed Judicial Commission which finally resulted in ECNECs approval for the purchase of five Combined Effluent Treatment Plants for Karachi. As far as domestic refuse is concerned, the best way is to recycle those items that can be recycled and use the rest for generating energy through incinerators, something that is routinely being done in many countries.

Oil pollution in harbour and all along the coast also provides a major cause of worry. There are believed to be over 14000 fishing craft operating out of Karachi and nearby creeks, in addition to the large number of harbour craft, whose constant oil seepages go unchecked. The large number of ships entering and exiting Karachi and Bin Qasim ports also know that they can get away with bilge discharges in the absence of local enforcement regulations. Another major source of recurring oil pollution are the oil refineries at Korangi and Bin Qasim, which routinely secrete their waste products into the Korangi and Phitti creeks. A not so savoury arrangement is the repumping of finished products from the Korangi refineries back to Keamari for subsequent transportation via oil bowsers to Oil Marketing Companies’ depots and petrol stations. These oil tankers are massed in the vicinity of Keamari, where oil leakages are a sore and dangerous sight. The Sindh High Court has placed its full support behind the move to get most of these bowsers to shift to the Zulfiqarabad terminal in the city outskirts, all to no avail thus far.

The one event that had the potential to jolt the nation from its stupor about the perils of oil pollution, but didn’t, was the Tasman Spirit oil spill of 2003. This decrepit single-hulled tanker had got grounded at around 1300 on 27 July while rounding the bend of the Karachi port outer channel to proceed to its assigned berth. This was admittedly the single greatest maritime disaster to have struck our coast. From a trickle when the vessel got grounded to a flood when it was on the verge of breaking into two, more than 30,000 MT of oil found its way unimpeded to the Clifton coast and even into the Keamari groyne backwaters as well as the inner channel. Let alone the sea, even the harbour got polluted due to evaporation, particularly after the major spillage on 13 August, directly impacting the residents of Shireen Jinnah colony, DHA, Seaview and Clifton as well as the picnickers and the vendors present there. Around 600 kgs of dead fish were discovered on Clifton beach on 14 August, an unseemly Independence Day gift. Apart from mangrove forests, which are natural fish hatcheries, their seedlings and propagates were also extensively damaged.

It is understandable that it may not be possible to hoard specialised and expensive salvage equipment to cater to the event of a possibly rare one-off occurrence. What is of utmost importance is that overall preparedness and coordination levels between the various stakeholders should be such that containment, damage assessment and damage control efforts can serve as an immediate band aid solution till the cavalry arrives. This was conspicuously lacking in the Tasman Spirit case.

The good part was that the vessel’s owner had immediately got in touch with the insurers, the American P&I Club, which then contacted the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd (ITOPF), a non-profit organisation specialising in instant ship source oil spill responses, and ITOPF in turn engaged the Southampton based Oil Spill Response Ltd UK(OSRL) and the Singapore-based East Asia Response Ltd(EARL) to help combat the ensuing pollution.

The bad part was that the ship owner engaged the salvors a full 3 days after the incident, and so consequently the badly-needed salvage tugs and specialised salvage equipment from places like Fujairah, Colombo, Rotterdam and Athens took another 3 to 5 days to arrive. Containment, skimming and dispersal operations could thus only begin in earnest when both the ITOPF and OSRL experts, as well as salvage equipment sent in by the salvors, were available for guidance and use.

The good part again was that despite the dire working conditions, the salvors managed to retrieve and duly transfer around 34000 MT of oil to the large motor tanker sent by the owner, before the ship’s hull broke into two.

In the aftermath of this incident, a few changes are discernible. Firstly, Pakistan finally became a member of the Civil Liability Convention 1971, which is meant to cover liabilities for combating pollution to reasonable extent. Pakistan is still not a member, however, of the 1971 Fund Convention, which is meant to cover additional liabilities beyond the CLC cover. Secondly, some salvage equipment has now been procured. Now since our organisational, operational and functional inadequacies stood exposed during the emergency, the Pakistan Navy took the initiative of formulating a National Marine Disaster Contingency Plan. The experience gleaned from the conduct of simulated oil spill exercises involving the active participation of other associated stakeholders like PMSA, port authorities and OMCs enabled NHQ to go in for the plan’s update, which has also since been tried out in table top and simulated exercises.

I may also mention here that an earlier PN initiative had resulted in the formation of the Marine Pollution Control Board in 1994 under the chairmanship of the Chief of Naval Staff. This board, till its dissolution in 1999, had made substantive progress in controlling and combating marine pollution. Though control of pollution in Karachi harbour is the preserve of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, the Pakistan Navy, smarting under its massive impact, lobbied hard with the concerned Senate Standing Committee to reactivate the MPCB, which came through in 2009. The Board under a new chair soon went into a hibernation mode. On its part, PN has got constructed a multipurpose barge, which is since being used for collection of oily compensating water secreted by submarines in harbour.

It needs to be stressed however that although accidental discharges such as the one in the Tasman Spirit case are often more visible to the public at large, it is actually operational discharges that result in a much more consistent and significant source of oil pollution. The most comprehensive bit of legislation for the preservation of the marine environment is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973/78, or MARPOL 73/78 for short, so called because prior to its entry into force after adoption, a spate of tanker accidents in 1976-77 forced the emergence of the Protocol of 1978 which absorbed the parent legislation. Contrary to popular perception, MARPOL does not only deal with oil discharges, but also with the prevention or control of pollution by noxious liquid substances carried in bulk, by harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form, by sewage from ships, by garbage from ships and even air pollution from ships. Although Pakistan is a signatory to the MARPOL Convention, it sadly hasn’t yet enacted its own domestic legislation for its effective implementation. Enforcement thus remains sketchy at best and non-existent at worst. The US Congress, by contrast, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, had immediately passed a comprehensive piece of legislation called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990(OPA’90), which helped the US extract an exorbitant amount of compensation in the Deepwater Horizon case. We can perhaps take a leaf from this page.

The Ballast Water Management Convention for preventing the spread of destabilising alien species has entered into force in September last year, though the desired facilities are neither available in our flag ships nor in our ports. Another important convention on restricting sulphur dioxide emissions to 0.5%(from the current limit of 3.5%) is due to enter in force in 2020, but again the desired air of urgency is missing.

The coast west of Karachi is relatively pristine at present, which is why we need to initiate action now in order to avoid the sort of pitfalls we have ended up with, in Karachi and the Indus delta. Around 30 miles west of Karachi lies the ship-breaking yard of Gadani, which is again an environmental disaster, as not only are the vessels beached before being dismantled, basic precautions like removal of residual oil, bunker fuel and other noxious substances are mostly ignored. The clear guidelines incorporated in the 2009 Hong Kong International Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships are also not given much thought. A petrochemical complex along with an offshore mooring for berthing VLCCs is also in operation nearby. Further west, we an see naval footprints in Ormara, Pasni, Turbat and Jiwani. The port of Gwadar has, since the completion of its first phase in 2007, seen an extraordinary level of activity, with the industrial and logistics zone established there, now open for investment and business. Sadly, neither water supply nor safe sewerage disposal is being accorded priority. Another bit of bad news is that the planned 1325 MW gas-fired power plant is being replaced by a coal-based one and this is being done at a time when renewable sources of energy are becoming increasingly affordable. One can only hope that the companies which show interest in setting up their factories at any of the CPEC-related Special Economic Zones are bound by law to incorporate suitable safeguards for the safe disposal of their toxic waste. Action on all this required to be initiated now, for tomorrow may be too late.

Coming back to Karachi, which is presently the most pressing cause for concern, a recently conducted World Bank sponsored study on ‘Transforming Karachi into a liveable and Competitive Megacity’ has laid the blame for the city’s water and sanitation woes, not to mention air pollution, squarely at the door of poor governance. Karachi figures amongst the most rapidly expanding of cities, fuelled both by natural growth as well as immigration from all corners of the country and even beyond. Urban green space has thus shrunk to only 4% of the city’s built up area and if we throw the planned adjoining city of Zulfiqarabad and the planned nearby port of Keti Bandar, along with the massive real estate schemes underway along the superhighway to Hyderabad, in the mix, we have a recipe for environmental disaster. Coal berths have been operating frantically at Karachi for quite some time, creating unprecedented levels of air pollution and causing serious public health hazards. To add to the woes of the citizenry, another such berth, better protected though, has sprung up at Bin Qasim, which will soon be catering to the needs of the huge coal-fired power power plant near completion in the vicinity.

The solutions are obvious and all it requires is staunch political will. We are unfortunately living in a dreary present where everything we touch, eat, drink or inhale is tainted on some way. The impurities laden seawater has already intruded 70 km inland in places and is on the verge of encroaching upon the vegetable basket of Karachi, Malir. The planned Special Economic Zones at Thatta and Gwadar, along with the 1325 MW coal-fired plants at Bin Qasim and Gwadar possesses the potential to devastate the environment, if the required safeguards are not imposed and enforced now. Should we allow today’s neglect to imperil our tomorrows. The sort of legacy we want to pass on to our coming generations is in our hands.

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