Ecological disasters

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

BP (or Beyond Petroleum as British Petroleum branded itself after its merger with Amoco in 2000) has been in the news practically every day in the British and American media since April when its Deep-water Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people.

Since then a massive amount of oil is being spilled into the sea making it one of the worst ecological disasters of its kind in the world.

According to the US Geological Survey`s latest estimates 40,000 barrels a day were being spewed out of the well before the blown-out riser pipe was capped on June 3. Even now the spill continues but at a slower pace. The oil slick containing 20 million gallons of oil has affected 110km of Louisiana`s coastline in the Gulf of Mexico, affecting wildlife and fishery in the region.

If this has not received much attention in the Pakistani media it is not really surprising. The Gulf of Mexico is too distant a place to capture our imagination. Besides we have our own our own ecological disaster to worry about. Since early January Hunza, a land of scenic beauty in the north, has been threatened by a calamity that could be traced to man-made causes, according to some environmentalists. They attribute it to the merciless dynamiting done in the area for building the Karakoram Highway several years ago.

In January, a massive landslide in the Hunza River valley buried the village of Attaabad killing 20 people. That was not all. It dammed up the river as well obstructing its flow. Thus a lake was formed that has been growing in dimensions. All the authorities did was to evacuate the people of the area to IDP camps. The lake is now said to be over 300 feet deep and 22km long.

A great length of the Karakoram Highway and many homes and farms have been submerged. Since early June the water level is reported to have reached the brim and has begun to spill out. There is also the risk of the landslide debris that forms the banks of the natural dam being breached leading to massive flooding downstream. Engineers of the armed forces have been attempting to build a spillway to avert a tragedy but so far the work has not been completed.

It is interesting to compare the two cases although they are a world apart. BP`s case is that of a giant multinational suspected of cutting corners and neglecting safety standards to earn a few extra millions in profit. The economic impact of the oil company`s mishap is already being felt. Its shares have halved in value on the stock market, having fallen from about £125bn to about £70bn in the last two months.

Employing 10,105 people in the UK and another 22,800 in the US, BP has contributed massive amounts — £5.8bn by one count — in taxes and duties to the British government and approximately £1 of every £7 paid in dividends to pension funds by 100 companies last year came from BP.

The economic aspect has overshadowed the environmental dimension of the disaster. The strong reaction of the Obama administration has cast a shadow on US-UK relations though American officials have been quick to point out that the president was not anti-British in his tone when he spoke to Prime Minister David Cameron recently. But the language used on both sides has been at times harsh and even `undiplomatic`, the term used by the American ambassador in London.

Mr Obama tried to make amends by declaring that he was not attacking Britain`s national identity. But as expected analysts were busy reading meanings in the president`s words and his reference to the original name of the company — British Petroleum — became a talking point. Even the World Cup match in South Africa between England and the US lost some of its charm.

Obviously all this is not going to help matters especially because the oil spill is expected to continue until August when the new relief well being drilled comes into operation. Even more damaging is the impression created that the multinationals have become so powerful that governments are now abdicating their regulatory roles.

The Minerals Management Services in the US which is supposed to keep a watchful eye on the functioning of the oil giants has been accused of laxity — it has even been charged with cosying up to the oil companies and its director had to resign a month after the fateful rig exploded triggering the crisis

Another significant disclosure by the Centre for Responsive Politics in the US also concerns the oil giant. The centre has revealed that BP paid $112,000 to 70 candidates running in the elections. More than half this amount has gone to the Republicans. Since 1990 $3.4m has been paid by BP to federal candidates.

Mercifully, Pakistan`s handling of the Hunza landslide has no such parallel. No multinational is involved — it is purely the government`s own doing. The allegations have been more of negligence, indecision and a failure to act promptly.

It also seems that so far those in charge have not been able to determine clearly if human errors have been responsible for the ecological catastrophe. As happens in Pakistan the human costs of an environmental calamity are always greater than in developed countries. The loss of life was higher when the landslide occurred and now 30,000 people have been displaced, with more likely to join their ranks if the dreaded flooding takes place.

What engineers and technologists — whether in the Gulf of Mexico or in Hunza — should know is that callousness and a cavalier approach should be avoided when dealing with nature. Neither the BP nor the engineers in Hunza can be certain about the long-term effects of the disaster they are grappling with at the moment. The other point to emphasise is that greed and avarice never pay. In fact strategies undertaken for profit motives can very often backfire.