Global Editions

Mubarak Village oil spill remains a messy affair

Photo credit: Ismail Sasoli | Dawn
Experts warn that the damage done by the spill to the marine ecosystem will linger for decades
by Wasay Ibrahim

Five days after initial reports about the oil spill near Mubarak Village in Sindh, the narrative surrounding the incident remains muddled and incoherent. According to initial reports, local fishermen had spotted an oil slick floating off the Mubarak village coastline on October 24. By the next day, the slick had reached Mubarak village and reports began to emerge of the discovery of crab, eel and croaker carcasses covered in oil. The oil itself was weathered (as it began to turn into tar), meaning it had likely been floating in the ocean for a few days.

“The damage caused by the oil spill is extensive,” says conservation activist and diver Saquib Mehmood. “Marine life in and around the spill site, especially fish, has been devastated.” Commenting on the possible source of the spill, Mehmood said that ‘the greatest concentration of the oil seemed to be around an oil refinery located about five kilometers from Churna Island.”

Mehmood’s observation about the possible source of the spill was in line with initial reports in the media. Most reports seemed to suspect that the spill came from a leaking underwater pipeline leading to the aforementioned refinery. However, by October 29, the petroleum company to which the refinery belongs released a statement which said that according to its own investigation, there had been no leakage from any of its facilities. It went on to say that according to its own analysis of samples from the leak, the oil was a type of fuel known as bunker oil, which is not produced anywhere in Pakistan. This was confirmed by the Balochistan Environment Protection Agency.

Read more: Diving against marine debris

According to reports, WWF Pakistan has also taken oil samples from the spill site for oil fingerprinting, which will identify the source of the spill. However, they have not announced their findings thus far.

Bunker oil is a particularly viscous fraction obtained from distillation of crude oil. It’s only use is as a fuel for large ships, meaning that its most likely source is a ship headed to a nearby shipbreaking yard.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done to explain how the fishermen of Mubarak Village will be compensated for the losses they have incurred. Not only has the spill ravaged the local marine wildlife — the only source of revenue available to the fishermen — it also poses a serious health hazard.

“It is not just the oil in the water and sediment that poses a threat to the local wildlife and human population, but also the toxic fumes it releases,” warned Dr Nuzhat Khan of the National Institute of Oceanography while speaking to MIT Technology Review. “These fumes are particularly hazardous for children, the elderly and individuals with respiratory ailments like asthma,” she said. Commenting on the area affected by the spill, Dr. Nuzhat said that she could not give an exact figure, but she confirmed that the oil had reached Cape Monze beach, Bhit Khori beach and Hawkesbay beach.

Dr Nuzhat told MIT Technology Review that “the damage done to the coral reefs of Churna Island is of particular concern because it is almost impossible for the reefs to recover completely. Furthermore, there is no human action that can be taken to reverse what has been done, and we will simply have to wait for nature to take its course.”

Efforts are currently underway to clean up as much of the oil as possible. The Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) and Pakistan Navy began their clean up operation on October 26. By October 29, the PMSA had claimed that 70 percent of the affected area around Mubarak village had been cleaned up. However, as indicated by Dr Nuzhat Khan’s statement, the problem has spread far beyond Mubarak village.