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[KARACHI] The Pakistan government is coming under fire for its handling of a massive oil spill that has blackened Karachi's beaches and damaged marine life.

Environmentalists say the country lacks the resources and expertise to deal with last month's incident, and accuse the government of inappropriate use of chemical dispersants and heavy machinery to clean beaches.

Faisal Gabol, environment minister of Pakistan’s Sindh province, admits that the country was “not well prepared for such a big disaster" and "is still looking ahead for what is to be done”.

More than 30,000 tonnes of crude oil leaked into the ocean when the Greek-registered tanker, MT Tasman Spirit, ran aground on 27 July and cracked in two a fortnight later. But “so far no effective control measures have been taken by the government,” according to Tahir Qureshi of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

Pakistan has no contingency plan to deal with oil spills, says IUCN. Furthermore, the country lacks the skills to deal with such disasters and has been forced to import equipment, resulting in an even more delayed response.

Environmental groups are concerned at the way that chemical dispersants have been used in the clean-up operation. “The spraying of chemical dispersants onto the oil slick was a cosmetic exercise because it addressed only 500 tonnes of the oil,” according to Qureshi.

They also complain that the equipment employed – such as booms used to contain the spill – is inadequate, and have criticised the use of heavy machinery to clean beaches in the first few days of the operation.

These problems are compounded by the fact that the country has not engaged with international conventions concerning oil spills, they say. Last week IUCN called on the Pakistan government to “sign, accede or ratify such conventions”.

“The incident underscores the importance of regional contingency plans and cooperation agreements," says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of United Nations Environment Programme. "[These] could help mobilise oil-fighting equipment and expertise from within neighbouring countries in times of crisis.”

The oil has destroyed mangrove forests and killed fish and turtles along Karachi's coastline. “There were so many dead fish and turtles in this area after the oil spill began," a salvage worker told SciDev.Net. "Now we don’t see many – maybe because all of them have died.” 

Richard Garstang of the Worldwide Fund for Nature says that the spill directly threatens “at least two species of endangered marine turtles, and five species of dolphins or porpoises.” Port officials report that around 34,500 tonnes of oil have now been siphoned off. But the tanker still contains around 1,500 tonnes of oil.

The government is demanding US$1billion in compensation from owners of the tanker. Pakistan’s Communication Minister Ahmed Ali also told journalists that his government intends to ask the owners to pay for all clean-up costs.

But this amount is insufficient, according to one expert assisting the Pakistani government. Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Programme told a news conference: "the amount claimed by the [government] as compensation from the vessel's owners is nothing – it's just a slap on the wrists of the insurers.”

He believes that had the country signed various international conventions that cover the control of oil pollution, its claim for compensation would have been significantly strengthened.