Toxic gas in Karachi

Residents living and working close to Karachi’s busy port noticed a peculiar smell in Keamari and its neighboring areas. Afterward came the news of several deaths came as hospitals’ emergency wards began pouring with people complaining of dizziness, biting eyes, restless throats, chest constriction and breathing problems. Schools and offices close to the site have shut down for an uncertain period of time. The total number of confirmed deaths rose to over a dozen, which may unfortunately rise in the coming days. The city’s commissioner has guessed that a ship offloading soybean or a similar commodity could be behind the cause of deaths. Amidst all this mess and fear, one thing is true that Karachi is not all well equipped and underprepared to deal with a trouble of this scale. Addressing a press conference along with Sindh Minister for Local Government Syed Nasir Hussain Shah on Tuesday afternoon, Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani said numerous opinions were being considered but thus far the source of the gas and its nature was still well known. He said that an investigation was still continuing. Hydrogen sulphide, nitric oxide identified in Keamari during monitoring of air quality. Spokespeople also stressed the need for having a inter disciplinary team and close collaboration among the different investigating authorities to find the origin of the toxic gas leak that was in the reported in the residential areas surrounding the port in Keamari and so far asserted 14 lives and sickened over 300. These areas included Bhutta village, Railway Colony, Jackson bazaar and Massan Road. The grades of all pollutants particularly the dangerous hydrogen sulphide and nitric oxide gases were found very high near the Ziauddin Hospital when reports of more people being affected by the toxic gas leak emerged, stated an official of the Global Environmental Laboratory on the condition of secrecy. Over the past two days, it monitored air quality at the railway gate and near Ziauddin Hospital in Keamari and in the area of Seaview, Clifton. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah on Tuesday said the entire matter of toxic gas in Keamari had turned into a “mystery” and all forces and bodies were engaged to discover the real cause behind the incident. He said investigations into the incident were continuing and media would be informed about the real causes behind the leakage once the findings were presented before the authorities. He stated samples of the gas had been sent to a Karachi University laboratory and PCSIR. Appropriate action would be taken against those who are found responsible for the incident, said the minister. He said all the relevant agencies came into action soon after the incident was reported. Most of those affected people have been given treatment and discharged from hospitals. Those people have returned to their homes. The provincial health department had declared a state of emergency in all its hospitals after the incident and still the provincial government’s agencies and Pakistan Navy were there to guide the people in need. He said the Karachi Port was a busy gateway of Pakistan that was why assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had planned for the Keti Bundar project to keep the port away from human settlements. He said the chief minister had earlier suggested for evacuation of the area because of the situation at that time, but now the situation had improved. Commissioner Shallwani said the incident had affected only a single area. He asked the media not to lend an ear to the whispers regarding spread of gas in other parts of the teeming metropolis.
Fear and hatred in Keamari Town as source of toxic gas remains not known. With no answers forthcoming, residents of the area affected by the toxic gas are living in a constant state of fear. The long queue of 18-wheeler trucks on Napier Mole road was the first giveaway that something was fault .The traffic jam, extending for almost three kilometers along the major thoroughfare that connects the KPT Interchange to the Karachi Port, had left vehicles stranded for hours on Tuesday afternoon. Jackson Market, the source of the hurdle was obvious. Public collected around a parked truck, standing on top with slogans against the government, port authorities and health officials. The majorities of the shops at Jackson Market were but people still walked about, giving the feeling that they anticipated them to open soon. Some wore surgical masks, others hid behind cloth masks.
The death of at least 14 people in a mystifying gas leak near the Keamari area in Karachi is a mankind catastrophe that could have been avoided. Karachi is Pakistan’s largest port and handles large number of ships and plenty of containers on a daily basis. In a month the traffic of containers coming in and going out of the Karachi port is in several millions. All this requires a huge storage capacity in and around the port area and the living quarters for those many that live and work in the surrounding colonies. Over the years, because of errors in town planning and carelessness of house building control, the residential areas and warehouses have come in close nearness. The unsuspecting dwellers of these areas have no protection against smoke emerging from store houses and underground storage facilities. There appears to be no control on health, safety, and environment laws on the companies that operate in that area, neither do they offer any warning in case of an urgency. This recent tragedy should serve as a warning to all relevant authorities to both federal and provincial to put their record straight in order and restrict such catastrophe from happening again. We must also pursue government officials both at the centre, in Sindh as well as city officials from Karachi to realize that at such moments sympathy and understanding and frank communication with the people goes a long way in lessening fear and terror. Regrettably, we did not observe that these past two days. Even after the passage of many hours, the cause of the gas leak in Keamari, a neighborhood near the Karachi Port, remains an enigma. The government has ruled out sabotage. Authorities were warned when people in Keamari area started rushing to nearby hospitals with severe breathing trouble on Sunday night. Thank God the gas leak which had begun to remind the atrocities of the Bhopal gas tragedy of December 1984 has not spread beyond the Keamari neighborhood.

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