ON Sunday evening, residents living and working close to Karachi’s bustling port noticed a strange smell in Keamari and its adjoining areas.
Then came the news of several deaths as hospitals’ emergency wards began flooding with people complaining of dizziness, stinging eyes, itchy throats, chest tightness and breathing problems.
Since then, schools and offices close to the site have shut down for an indefinite period of time.
Last evening, the total number of confirmed deaths rose to over a dozen, which may unfortunately rise in the coming days.
Heartbreaking videos of family members weeping over the loss of their loved ones were being circulated, as Keamari’s Jackson Market erupted in protests, with residents demanding answers from the authorities. And yet, two days on, the government still cannot trace the source of the noxious fumes.
In a press conference, the chairman of the Karachi Port Trust denied that the poisonous gas originated from the areas within its jurisdiction, but the city’s commissioner has speculated that a ship offloading soybean or a similar commodity could be behind the string of deaths — which was then strongly contested by the federal minister for maritime affairs.
While various authorities such as the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency and police have launched probes to ascertain the cause of the supposed leakage, the chief minister has issued evacuation orders from the affected areas, and private bodies have released safety precautions for residents over what they should do in such times. But explanations are still not forthcoming.
In the absence of information and clarity, multiple theories have arisen, with responsibility then being shifted from one authority to another, which seems to have now become the default mode each time tragedy strikes the metropolis.
Amidst all this confusion and panic, one thing is certain: Karachi is seriously unequipped and underprepared to deal with a crisis of this scale.
This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the authorities are not prepared to handle a disaster of a larger magnitude, let alone relatively simple tasks of having functional monitoring systems in place that would help mitigate future disasters.
Chemical or industrial leakages such as these are usually the result of human negligence caused by not following proper risk assessments or implementing safety standards. At the very least, the concerned authorities must ensure that emergency protocols are in place.
Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2020