SERIOUS ferry accidents tend to happen in faraway countries of which we know little, other than that their poverty and extreme dependence on water transport coincide in a fatal conjunction. They are mostly domestic ferries and poorly regulated, outside all the many conventions that govern international shipping. But they kill some 1,200 people every year, and that is just the accidents that are reported and can be added to the data that is available. It is suspected that this figure falls far short of the truth. There is no mystery about why so many fatalities occur in developing nations. The craft are often old, because that is all that can be afforded, poorly maintained, because maintenance costs money they haven’t got, and overloading is a regular feature, with poor terminal facilities that cannot restrict passenger numbers to that which is within the ship’s stability limitations. And people are desperate to travel — to work, to their homes, to market — and will do anything to get on board. There is no point, as is the case on the London Underground, in telling people not to rush, or take risks boarding trains, “because there always will be another one soon” In the case of these ferries, providing the only affordable transport for poor people, there probably won’t be another until tomorrow and who wants to wait?
So, they rush the boarding ramps, leap over the rails and climb on the cabin roof. And because it is an elderly monohull and its skipper afraid of what the desperate passengers might do if he refuses to sail because of overloading or forecast bad weather, the end result is a tragedy. There are other contributors. More advanced nations often offload their own elderly ferries into these places where they know there is a demand, regardless of their suitability for the conditions, or the capabilities of the crews to operate these (for them) advanced craft. They might even be gifted such ships as part of aid packages, which might seem very generous, but in several occasions these apparently well-meaning presents have been fatal for their recipients.
A further problem might be the reluctance of the governments of countries where there are shockingly high numbers of deaths on ferries to even admit the problems, let alone to discuss them at international fora. It is seen as interference in the domestic business of the country and it takes a rare humility for any government to admit that it cannot reduce preventable mass casualties to its citizens. Any external approaches need to be undertaken with caution and diplomacy. But there is progress being made. In the Philippines, which has suffered some of the world’s worst peacetime marine disasters, an appalling annual death toll has been substantially reduced. Are there practical points that can be learned from this improvement and passed down the line to other countries for their benefit, saving lives in the short and medium term? Interferry, which represents ferry operators all around the world, has been involved in efforts to promote ferry safety for several years and it is perhaps significant that a number of its members operate in the Philippines. Its latest initiative currently involves a four-man team of experts being sent to the UK with the express purpose of documenting the improvements that have seen annual ferry deaths fall from more than 1,000 little more than a decade ago, to an insignificant number today. The mission is being supported by a grant from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, which last year published its own report into ferry casualties in developing nations. The team, led by Dr Neil Baird, who has almost singlehandedly tracked ferry casualties for several decades and assembled the most complete data that is currently available, along with two fellow members of the Interferry domestic safety committee, regulatory affairs director Johan Roos and naval architect Edwin Pang, who is currently chair of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects International Maritime Organization Committee. Nelson Dela Cruz of the Philippine Maritime League completes the team as its local facilitator. It is conducting interviews with shipowners, operators, regulators, naval architects, shipyards, class societies, surveyors, insurers, the coastguard, tourism agencies and importantly the customers and local media. There will be a second round of talks in the summer and the practical recommendations will be due by the end of the year. Directed at other developing nations, these will be made through the Interferry association with the Asean Regional Forum on ferry safety and also at IMO, where the organisation has consultative status. Johan Roos — who represents Interferry at the IMO and the EU and knows something of the political realities of translating recommendations into practical improvements — notes that “political support” from the respective countries is as important as external funding and co-operation.
But the fact that the Philippines has been able to make such progress does demonstrate that such is “doable” and there ought to be very many lessons that can be exported to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa where such a dreadful toll of ferry passengers is a regular annual tragedy.
Author: Michael Grey