Oil spill threatens marine life, coastal ecosystems

Spillage from an oil tanker grounded just off the coast near the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, has already caused catastrophic damage to marine and plant life, the effects of which could linger on for years with devastating results, according to a top environmentalist.

"It is an ecological, environmental and economic disaster," Tahir Qureshi, the head of the coastal ecosystems unit at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, told IRIN from Karachi on Friday.

Local authorities, aided by international teams experienced in oil-spill containment, struggled to minimise the damage from the Greek-registered Tasman Spirit, which originally carried over 65,000 mt of crude oil. The ship ran aground just off the bustling Karachi coastline on 28 July and is thought to have spilled at least 12,000 mt of oil, with another 20,000 mt siphoned off by salvage ships.

Roughly another 35,000 mt remained on board, but salvage teams were forced to give up any hope of saving the already oil-polluted waters from further degradation when, battered by the rise and fall of daily tides, the ship began to fall apart. It had finally broken in two on Thursday, Qureshi said.

"Forest fisheries have been affected, marine biodiversity stands in danger of being destroyed and the full effects of this disaster will only just begin to show," he added.

The catastrophe had already struck marine life hard, Qureshi said, describing having personally witnessed dozens of dead fish and crabs lying on a beach close to an upscale housing society, where residents had already complained of respiratory problems, skin diseases and other health issues.

"More than 35 square kilometres in the sea have been affected by the oil. Karachi’s mangrove forests have been affected, their seedlings are covered with oil; they are getting no oxygen, they will never recover," he said, pointing out that the disaster had hit the mangroves right in the middle of their seeding season.

Alarmed by the scale of the damage predicted, Karachi port authorities had acted swiftly to preserve their ships and installations, setting up marine 'roadblocks' around the harbour to keep the rapidly spreading swill at bay, a Karachi Port Trust (KPT) official said. "We cannot allow the oil to enter the harbour; it could damage the ships and our other installations," Rashid Yahya Usmani, the manager of the KPT pollution-control department, told IRIN from Karachi.

International teams assisting local authorities still recovering from the devastation wrought by the recent floods had suggested Clifton beach, which stands in front of an exclusive Karachi neighbourhood, be used as a "sacrificial area to protect the mangroves in the harbour," Usmani said.

"And the ship is not broken up; it appears to have been broken, but I believe that the hull is still joined together by a keel plate," he noted. "We have several seven-tonne sinkers [concrete blocks placed around the ship] holding it in place and we hope to hold the aft section of the ship in place long enough for the remainder of the oil to be siphoned off."

One company of the several international consultants called in to help with the cleanup operation had already started aerially spraying the affected area using a special aircraft, he added.

"What use is spraying the area from a plane going to do?" Qureshi wanted to know. "I have been all over the place myself, I have personally gone and seen the extent of the oil spill, it is far worse than what these people understand," he added, accusing the authorities of not having taken preventive measures quickly enough. "They had 20 days to do something about this. They didn’t!"

"There’s 10 times more oil today than there was yesterday. And it’s bad timing: since the Clifton area is close to the turtle beach, where rare green turtles come annually between the months of July and November to lay their eggs; we could see lots of problems for that species," he maintained.

Thickly inhabited areas along the Clifton coastline, leading up to Port Qasim in the east were likely to be badly affected, he warned. "There are heavily populated clusters of fishing communities whose very livelihoods will be destroyed, because they’ll have no fish to catch now."

"It will take the mangroves at least three to four years to recover from this disaster, possibly more. And the scale of the disaster could have been limited had the authorities reacted properly - and if they didn’t have obsolete equipment," he said.

"As it is, the situation is out of their control. The salvage people were not committed, they had 20 days to do something. How are they going to control this now that the ship is sinking? They are poorly equipped, they do not have the technology," Qureshi added.