Pakistan: How plastic gas bags are putting lives at risk
Jamila Achakzai in Islamabad
December 29, 2022
Pakistanis are increasingly using plastic bags for gas storage, but it's extremely dangerous and poses risks to life and property.
Masooma Bibi, a middle-aged homemaker, lives in an impoverished neighborhood in Charsadda district in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Until two years ago, she used to cook with firewood, which emits unhealthy levels of noxious gases and particulates that affect the respiratory track.
But now she relies on gas that's stored in large, improvised plastic bags.
The bags, with nozzles and valves fixed tightly, are filled up with natural gas at shops that are connected to the country's gas pipeline network. They are then sold to people, who use the gas afterward with the help of a small electric suction pump.
A compressor is needed for filling the plastic bag and supplying the gas from the bag to the kitchen. The bag, according to a user, can be filled in an hour.
While the use of such bags for gas storage is increasing, it's also extremely dangerous and poses risks to life and property.
"There are warnings about these plastic bags causing gas explosions, but, firstly, I haven't heard about any such mishap, and secondly, even if these fears are true, we [poor people] have no other choice due to expensive cylinders," she said.
Gas cuts amid supply shortages
Natural gas is one of the cheapest sources of fuel in Pakistan and widely used for cooking food and heating.
Compounding the problem is the high cost of cylinders that are used to store and transport gas.
Najeebullah Khan, a trader, said gas cylinders, often made of carbon steel or steel alloys, cost around 10,000 Pakistani rupees ($45, €42.3), which make them unaffordable for many households, shops and other businesses.
"These reusable bags sell for 500-900 rupees ($2.3-$4) each, depending on the size, while the compressor prices range from 1,500-2,000 rupees each, depending on the size. People use them in both rural and urban centers," he said.
Dangers and clampdown on gas bags
Authorities, however, have recently cracked down on the use of plastic bags to store gas.
The public utility has outlawed the practice, declaring it a safety threat.
Dr. Quratulain, an Islamabad-based medical officer at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences' Burn Care Center, said her facility receives about eight patients daily from gas-related accidents and one or two of them critically injured.
"Mostly, women are injured by the explosion of cooking stoves, while the indoor gas leak blasts by match striking or electric sparks also cause burns to people," she said.
Officials in Peshawar city arrested 16 shopkeepers this month for selling such bags.
Is affordability the root cause?
Following the crackdown, the business has moved underground, with shopkeepers no longer selling the bags openly, fearing fines and arrests.
Instead, they cater to the requests of only those customers who they believe won't report them to the police.
Yawar Abbas, a senior official at the public sector utility Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said poverty and high inflation are the main drivers of the problem.
Najma Mubeen, a Peshawar resident, shares the same view. She labels the shop closures, arrests and fines as "cosmetic measures."
"Affordability is the root cause of the problem with low-cost cylinders being the only effective answer to it," she said.