1280px Princess of the Stars August 2008

IF you are going to make shipping safer, you must have governments on board and acting proactively. Or, if you forgive the mixed metaphors, you could just kick the can down the road, pass the blame and carry on with business as usual.

Two recent items of news seemed to confirm this need for government willingness as the accelerator for any changes. There was an interesting report on the Ferrysafe project that has been looking for substantive evidence as to how ferry passengers can be saved from a watery grave around the world, but chiefly in developing nations. There have been major improvements in ferry safety throughout the Philippines in recent years and the project team have been studying these enhancements on the ground with a view to seeing what tips can be transferred elsewhere.

Why have ferry fatalities in the Philippines fallen from some of the highest in the world to being much closer to the global average, during the past decade? It clearly did not happen by accident. The project team had extensive talks during two visits to the country, with just about everyone who could throw some light on the situation. They talked to owners, operators, regulators, naval architects, class, surveyors, insurers, the coastguard, tourist agencies, the customers and the media. There was no magic bullet that made Philippine ferries much safer, but there were several important contributing factors.

First, and arguably the most important, was the willingness of the government to facilitate change, leading to the development of reasonably stringent regulations. The contribution of bad weather to many of these fatal accidents was recognised by regulations that provided for the prohibition of sailing and withdrawal of permits to sail, if bad weather justified such a policy. The importance of enforcement was seen to be crucial, with local enforcement personnel on the ground. Finally, the role of insurance and the importance of insurance surveys was a paramount factor.

The project now moves on to its next phase and is developing best practice guidance to assist the International Maritime Organization and developing nations which suffer from these casualties. You might reasonably argue that it was the decision of the Philippine government to make ferry safety a priority that was the first important step, along with a willingness to be open-minded about how ferry safety was developing elsewhere in the world.

While a lack of resources has undeniably been behind so many of the casualties which often kill hundreds at a time, the situation is not helped by governments pretending it is an “internal” matter and no business of the International Maritime Organization or the wider community to trespass on their sovereignty. It clearly takes diplomacy of a high order to break down this introverted attitude, even to get governments to admit they could do with some international help and advice. It is encouraging that the IMO, for years constrained by its restriction to “international” marine safety, seems now committed to be a useful agent for change. But getting any government to admit it has a problem and open the doors to expertise is all-important. You can see a similar situation regarding the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, with the shipping community demanding action to bring this awful situation under control.

The situation has been going on for years, with seafarers being kidnapped and terrorised and subjected to extreme violence, and with the Nigerians remaining obdurate about any external interference in their territorial seas. You cannot deny that issues of sovereignty, the Nigerian insistence that it is no business of other navies to interfere, and that armed protection on board merchant ships is unacceptable have all played a part. To ask a rhetorical question, how would you feel if your government allowed people with guns, or foreign warships into your territorial waters?

There is also the domestic situation in Nigeria, with the government and its hard-pressed forces facing insurrection and lawlessness in the Delta and large-scale Islamist terrorism in the north of the country. It is not that the problem of offshore and coastal piracy is taken lightly, it is that it is a small-scale issue compared with these other outrages being faced by the nation. So, it was interesting that it was not governments, but agencies from the shipping community which met at IMO earlier this month to voice their concern and impatience at the continuing scourge faced by their crews taking ships into Guinea waters It was probably an encouragement that the director general of the Nigerian Maritime Authority and Safety Agency was able to point to improving capacity of law enforcement and naval capability that he suggested would make these awful crimes “history” within a matter of months The proof will be self-evident, but maybe Nigerian government priorities are changing and moving the Gulf of Guinea piracy problem some way up the scale It was notable that the Government of India, which has had enough of its citizens being terrorised, has this month prohibited its seafarers from voyages to this dangerous gulf.

Maybe others, which seem oblivious to the risks run by seafarers, may think about doing the same. It is a sign that a government cares, like that of the Philippines, about the safety of its ferry passengers.

Source : Michael Grey  -  Lloydslist