The Writer is journalist and Lecturer at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto University of Law.
The Kemari peninsula is located on the eastern side of Karachi port. Forensic experts at Karachi University have claimed that a sea vessel docked at the Keamari port on February 16 containing soybeans. A mysterious toxic gas emitted from the ship resulting in the death of fourteen people from different areas of Kemari while scores others have been admitted in hospital for inhaling this toxic gas. Many of the victims already suffered from respiratory problems. The rampant sale of coal in the area has resulted in the release of toxins that has intensified breathing problems for local residents.
According to initial reports, the residents from the adjoining Massan Road to Jackson market area were the first to complain of breathing problems after the items were being unloaded from the sea vessel. Local residents blamed it on the release of a mysterious toxic gas resulting in the death of four people initially and over a dozen admitted in critical condition.
The relevant departments, terminal operators, Karachi Port Trust, Ministry of Ports and Shipping, and local administration acted as usual. First came the denial that the deaths from toxic gas were based on rumours and then they disassociated themselves and their departments from the incident. They claimed that the incident had not occurred within their domain and was a localised occurrence. This was followed by a complete denial that no such a ship was even docked at the port. The statements by chairman KPT and Minister for Ports and Shipping Ali Zaidi gave the impression that they have no responsibility for the incident.
The number of deaths and affected victims kept on increasing and the toll has reached fourteen. The first case was reported within 48 hours leading to different teams from Pakistan Navy, provincial health department, and Karachi University experts visiting the area and investigating at the hospitals. They collected blood samples of the victims and air quality samples and eventually concluded that that unsafe unloading of soybeans from the sea vessel has resulted in the spread of toxic dust.
Another source claims that fumigation has been made compulsory over imported items at Karachi ports due to the threat of the coronavirus outbreak in China. A fumigation company had received permission from the Plant Protection Department to conduct a spray drive at the old port area of the PIDC terminal where they used the banned and highly poisonous bromide chemical.
This is not the first incident involving unsafe and hazardous material at Karachi’s ports and neither will it be the last. For several years, coal is being handled in a very unsafe way in Kemari port and transported by trucks. This has worsened the air quality in several adjoining and other areas of Karachi, thousands are suffering from respiratory diseases, and has caused irreparable loss to buildings.
Several complaints have been made to KPT authorities who have refused to budge. The Human Rights Network has even staged protests outside the KPT’s head office against the unsafe handling and disposal of hazardous materials. The Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (PEPA) is also oblivious to the matter while sea pollution in and around the port area has reached a dangerous level and industrial effluents and untreated waste are being openly dumped in the sea. To add further insult, the KPT has chopped the natural barriers of mangrove forests and set up plots distributed among its officers. There is no investigation in these matters nor has anyone been held accountable. If necessary precautions had been taken, then those fourteen innocent lives could have been saved.
The Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and armed forces chief should take notice of the incident. There should be a judicial investigation, the culprits should be identified, the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, KPT, terminal operators, ship owners, and stewards should be fined and given exemplary punishment for their gross negligence and incompetence. We also demand that the victims and those affected should be compensated. There should be international standards implemented at all ports to ensure that all products are handled in a safe and environmental-friendly way to keep our coastal areas clean.