Reflecting on the Bahawalpur Fire a Year on

June 25, 2018, which has recently passed by, is a somber day for Pakistan. It is the first anniversary of the Bahawalpur oil tanker tragedy. On this date, a year ago, a tanker truck carrying 40,000 litres of oil overturned on a highway in the district of Bahawalpur in southern Punjab, spilling its contents. A large crowd of people gathered around it to collect oil and then the puddles of oil ignited and set the crowd on fire, killing dozens instantly. Scores of people ended up badly burned and were shifted to and treated at hospitals across Pakistan with great difficulty, while the death toll rose rapidly in the days ahead. 219 were ultimately to die from the accident. Unusually for a disaster, the number of wounded was smaller, 140, mostly because of the deadliness of the blast.
It was a horrifying tragedy that shocked the nation and dulled Eid celebrations. It was a very distinct disaster. In many ways, it was unusual and it was horrific in its nature. I wrote a blog post detailing the event in Tragedy at Bahawalpur, the first post on this website. Now that the anniversary of the event has passed by, it is worth our while to revisit the lessons from that grim event. It is something that tells us a lot about disaster management.
First and foremost, the tanker fire was not a run-of-the-mill calamity. Such events do not happen often and people are at little risk of falling victim. The disaster was unusual because the hazard was small. We deal with many types of disasters which occur frequently. Whether fires spreading through buildings or floods inundating a densely populated area, we regard them as a part of how the world goes. Thus, people tend to be well aware of the risk from them. But people gathering around spilt oil from a crashed tanker and catching fire does not happen often. Plus, this is really something that one would not expect. Traffic accidents are very common anywhere in the world and any liquid carried in a huge tank on a vehicle would have a good chance of ending up gushing out onto the road. But people all around flocking to it and putting themselves in one of the most dangerous situations imaginable? That is weird.
The Bahawalpur fire was thus an unexpected disaster. This made the hazard difficult to watch out for. It shows us that bad things happening to a large number of people can come from just about anything. We have to keep a watch out for whatever could happen, not just events that we are used to.
Understandably, Pakistan wasn’t very prepared to deal with such a crisis. Not only were measures to prevent a crash not enforced, once it happened, the authorities were not well-equipped to deal with the gathering crowd. Perhaps this unfamiliarity also played a role in the most important ingredient in the recipe for catastrophe, the fact that so many people flocked to the oil itself. Their own poverty and ignorance certainly was responsible, but it may also have been the fact that there is barely a prior event of oil igniting with people around for them to be aware of and so know that this petrol might also ignite and burn them. If such events happened in Pakistan more often beforehand, or happened once before in their own area, they would have been the wiser for it.
The rarity of the hazard should not excuse our indifference. Tragedies are the same and it does not matter what caused them. If we are not ready for a disaster because it is so unheard of, we need to overcome that stumbling block. People must be kept safe from anything and we must be ready to deal with anything that could happen. The Bahawalpur tragedy could have been averted if people had awareness of the danger.
That is commonly how it goes for disasters. People become aware of the risk only after one has already happened. But it is not the right idea to use that as a yardstick for preparation. It is absolutely vital that people learn the lessons from the tragedies that have already passed, but it is also vital that they do not have to, since we do not want bad things to happen in the first place. So in order to determine the risk of a disaster happening, if we cannot turn to history, we don’t wait for that history to be made, we instead turn to science. We gather information about the circumstances around us to gain hazard risk awareness.
In situations like the Bahawalpur tragedy, however, there was not knowledge that people, or at least the authorities, were lacking. Every piece of information regarding the hazard was already in their heads. They just needed to put it all together. They would then have gathered that poverty may drive people towards spilt oil and that a truck as shoddy as that could crash easily. Then, the authorities would be prompted to take measures to safeguard against such an event anywhere in Pakistan.
Or would they? After having the knowledge and the intelligence to process it, people then need the motivation to do something. Maybe that is what is lacking most in Pakistan. There is a lot of corruption in Pakistan, which means many of those in positions of trust are willing to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Apathy too is common.
Then there is the question of delegating responsibility. It is the direct responsibility of the various authorities in Pakistan to do something about hazards like oil tanker spills. Like any functioning nation (which is to say anywhere that is not Somalia), we have certain official institutions with certain roles. Many of them are supposed to be involved in ensuring public safety. Public safety is also the responsibility of private agencies if the risk concerned involves something that they are in charge of. For example, the companies that own or operate tanker trucks are supposed to ensure that they are safety compliant. The drivers are supposed to carry out their jobs in as safe a manner as possible. If all these people don’t do what they are supposed to do, then the public institutions are supposed to come in and show them who is boss. But all of us also have our part to play in protecting the public. We should look at what we could have done to prevent something like Bahawalpur, what all could have been done that the rules do not require.
Let us look at all the circumstances behind the calamity at Bahawalpur to get a clear idea of all the factors making such an event possible. We have a tanker truck, a product of industrialization, interact with simple agriculturalists in a remote, rural area. Transportation routes are special kinds of places, where things that normally are far apart from each other can interact. A highway, for example, can pass through remote towns, farmlands, and pristine wildernesses.
Such circumstances create a special kind of risk during accidents, as people can come across things in their midst that they are unfamiliar with. People living alongside a major route, in particular, have all the rift raft of the world passing by them all the time. If a tanker truck spilled onto a busy street in a city, then people might stay away because they are familiar with the hazards of oil. But in Bahawalpur, we had rural villagers ignorant of industrial hazards. It is not clear how big a part that may have played in the tragedy. They already knew enough about petrol to want to get their hands on it desperately. Perhaps they just did not know that it is not just in a controlled environment like a stove that the chemical could easily alight. It can also happen in a random, open environment.
As both a transportation and an industrial accident, the Bahawalpur tragedy gives us the opportunity to discuss the state of transport and industrial safety in Pakistan, both huge problems. Traffic accidents in Pakistan are very common and regularly claim large numbers of victims. The railroads are the worst, but the roads are also quite hazardous. Industrial standards are low and industrial legislation in the nation is inadequate, plus it is poorly enforced. Industrial workers in Pakistan thus always live under great risk. When you combine transport and industry, however, then you are likely to get situations where unsuspecting non-workers fall victim to industrial accidents.
Pakistan is a rapidly developing nation but still very poor. That sort of situation creates the perfect recipe for a disaster like Bahawalpur. We have to make sure that we do not push our prosperity at the expense of our safety. That is a chronic condition across the world and especially happens in the competitive world of business and commerce. A business that is 80 percent as good as a competitor will not get 80 percent customers compared to the competitor. So, industries always have an incentive to ignore safety concerns. Hence there are laws that prevent this from happening, but in Pakistan, the authorities cannot be relied on very well.
Bahawalpur was throughout a failure of the authorities. Regulatory authorities did not stop a truck as poorly designed as that from plying the roads in such a hazardous way. The police were not able to keep the crowd away from the oil. The hospitals lacked the full capacity to deliver timely treatment to the victims. But the big player in the disaster was not really those who have the responsibility of protecting us. A tanker crash like this one could easily have turned out with nobody being hurt at all. The key, and most avoidable, ingredient in the catastrophe was that so many people eagerly put themselves in harm’s way.
By virtue of it being a disaster caused largely by the actions of its victims, the Bahawalpur oil spill disaster is an event that calls to our attention the role of the potential victims in disaster risk reduction. Every time a disaster befalls people or there is a danger of such, what those people do and what they can do is crucial. That is something we all know very well. But we are not always sure of its importance or its potential. Disaster risk reduction, of course, should not consist only of people at risk or people affected working to help themselves. People should help other people and the foundation of that help comes from authorities, those in positions of power or special capabilities who lead the way in protecting the masses.
A typical example is a team of first responders who are ready to help out in any crisis at any time. They are important because it cannot always be relied upon that people will save themselves. First responders are professionals and devote their lives to making themselves capable of doing this.
But people must also be able to protect themselves and that was sorely lacking in Bahawalpur. Everybody has survival instincts but these were not followed for petroleum. The Bahawalpur villagers did not have to know how to save themselves from a dangerous situation. They just had to stay away from it in the first place. There are two reasons why this could have happened. Either they did not know of the danger or they were desperate and judged the benefits of oil scooping to outweigh the risks. It would be worthwhile to interview the survivors of Bahawalpur Tragedy.
The first reason is simply an example of the extreme ignorance prevailing in Pakistan, how deprived of essential knowledge so many people are. The second is an example of how much want there is in the nation, how deprived the people are of the means to sustain themselves. But it also is about values. Governance is a code of conduct, including cognizance that people’s safety must be put above all else.
Basically, Ahmedpur Sharqia, the rural area where the victims lived, is a deprived place. By improving the quality of basic existence, the risk from the oil tanker crash could have been lowered. Education is what is needed the most. But if we cannot make things better in general, we can focus specifically on keeping the people safe from hazards by teaching them about it.
How could that have been done for Ahmedpur Sharqia and the oil spill? As part of safety awareness, people must know all about flammable chemicals they could come across in their lives.
Disaster awareness is what is needed most of all for disaster management. It involves knowing what could pose a threat to people and what can be done about it. The knowledge about a certain disaster risk must exist in the first place. That is what is required for the authorities to manage that risk. Then, there has to be found ways to share that knowledge with the common masses – the large numbers who are at risk.
As horrific as the Bahawalpur tragedy is, its lessons are very important. The calamity can guide us in so many ways and we will be able to go far in not only keeping people safe from spilt petrol but from hazards in general in Pakistan.
Going back to the disaster itself, a year has passed by since it occurred and now we must look at how its impact has been since and its after-effects now. A lot of people died and that will be felt tremendously on the area affected. Countless people are now bereft of loved ones. Many families are deprived of members. Some have even been mostly wiped out. For poor people, the impact of the loss of loved ones goes beyond just the grief. They can also find themselves in much more difficult circumstances. These people need our help. They have to be supported so they can cope with the impact of the disaster.
In addition to the departed and the bereaved, there is, perhaps most important of all, the living victims of the disaster to look after. These are the people who were injured by the blaze. Some physical injuries heal eventually. Others do not. When people are covered in burning oil, the latter kind of injury ensues in abundance. There are many whose lives are forever changed by the Bahawalpur fire. Many are physically disabled and mentally scarred.
The disaster of 25 June, 2017, is an issue that still has to be managed as the disabled and disfigured are still there to be taken care of. We need to take a look at them and see how they are doing now. If there is any more help that can be delivered to them, they must be provided with it.
All those affected must be gotten back on their feet to the extent possible. And we must do all we can to ensure people are never endangered in this way ever again and are generally protected from harm and tragedy. Bahawalpur is a wake-up call to Pakistani masses and governing authorities.

Shahzeb Khan is a writer, documentary maker, and environment activist. His work has been commended by the US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. He is the director of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (PPLDM).


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