Bahawalpur tragedy not first of its kind
The morning of 25th of June began as any other in Ahmedpur Sharqia in Bahawalpur District. That was until a tanker carrying 10,000 gallons of oil flipped over allowing the oil to flow onto the terrain. The spill resulted in small ponds attracting people from all around, hoping to cash in on the misfortune of the oil tanker. The word of the spill spread quickly as people from surrounding villages converged on the site of the accident.
One of the videos to emerge from the fateful morning shows cars and motorcyclists stopped on the highways next to the container as their owners tried to collect oil for themselves. It was a moth to the flame scenario, quite literally.
The explosion, when it came, was earthshaking, the likes of which have rarely been seen in this part of Southern Punjab. Virtually everything in the immediate vicinity was eviscerated. The inferno raged for hours after. By the time, the last day of Ramazan had ended the final death toll was still being upwardly revised and fast approaching 150, with dozens more injured. The dead and the injured were mostly poor villagers who were hoping to earn or save a few rupees by scooping up some of the oil that had leaked out after the accident.
Despite pronouncements from the media and the provincial administration that the police arrived on the scene and warned the people about the threat, no uniformed officers can be seen or observed in the videos that are circulating in the aftermath of the incident. As tragic as this incident was, it wasn’t the first of its kind in the country. In 1999 a similar accident resulted in 65 people dying in an explosion as they collected leaking oil. There is no reason to believe that safety standards for hazardous material transport or response mechanisms were reviewed or upgraded as a result of that episode.
We need to rethink the way we view transportation safety, especially in light of new development projects such as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). An investment in infrastructure needs to be accompanied by an enhanced capacity to deal with emergencies.
All large vehicles transporting oil or any other hazardous materials should pass a vehicle fitness test and be certified by a national authority. Any vehicle not meeting the requirements should not be able to ply the roads. Drivers are also an integral part of the safety equation. They should be properly trained and periodically tested to ensure that they are capable of driving long distances.
Furthermore, there is a need to hold oil companies accountable when it comes to maintaining safety standards. Although transporting oil via trucks is a cheaper option for them, they still try to force the drivers to drive longer hours in order to reach the destination quicker and maximize profits. This can be catastrophic.
The oil companies should also be responsible for sharing information about the destination, planned route as well as load with relevant authorities. This information should be available to relevant authorities along the route. Each vehicle should be equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) that needs to be connected to only the company headquarters but also a nationwide system that tracks vehicles transporting hazardous materials. Regular tracking will also ensure that transport vehicles reach their destination at a specific time and not earlier.
Furthermore, while each truck should be equipped with a caution light and siren that sends out a warning in case of an accident.
Hospitals in each of the country’s districts need to be upgraded at the earliest. The fact that the nearest burn centre was located over a 100 km away from the site of the incident in Ahmedpur Sharqia further exacerbated the situation. For a country of 200 million that has been suffering from terrorism for the past decade, we are extremely ill equipped to deal with medical emergencies.
An Incident Command System (ICS) should be set up at the District Level. There are a number of agencies that eventually respond to tragedies such as this including the police, district administration and the army to name a few. An ICS housed perhaps with the District Disaster Management Authority will increase the ability of various agencies to work with each other. It will engage stakeholders in a structured manner so as to coordinate the response to complex incidents such as oil spills and multi vehicle accidents.
Lastly, the media also has an important role to play in highlighting safety concerns to the public at large. Public service messages, in regional languages, should be made a part of the prime time slots so as to achieve greater outreach.
Regardless of what measures are taken now, the dead cannot be brought back. However, we can ensure that no such incidents happen in the future by ensuring that these steps are followed. The lives of the people of this country are too valuable to be left to fate alone.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.