The authorities may do well to enforce safety standards

While fatalities arising from road accidents or plane crashes easily catch public attention, the rising number of deaths occasioned by boat mishaps on the nation’s waterways should indeed be a serious cause for concern to the authorities. In three separate boat accidents on the same day last November in the waterways of Southern Ijaw, Bayelsa State and on River Gbako in Katcha Local Government Area of Niger State, no fewer than 14 persons, including a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member were killed.

It is understandable that boat accidents are inevitable in the creeks and coastlines especially given the fact that the people living in those areas have no alternative means of transportation. And perhaps because of the absence of other reliable transportation system, people tend to pile into whatever watercraft happens to be moving towards the direction they are going. This exactly explains the reason for the incessant boat accidents, given that most of the time very small wooden canoes carry passengers far beyond their capacity.

From Lagos State in the South-west to Bayelsa State in the South-south to Zamfara State in the North-west, accidents on the waterways are becoming almost a daily occurrence. While critical stakeholders in the Master Mariners Association of Nigeria (MMAN) have had to cry out on the need to address the situation, because of an absence of strict regulation, the harvest of deaths on the waterways is becoming alarmingly high.

Aside overloading, another cause of these marine accidents is the fact that most of the boats are old and suffer from lack of proper maintenance. Perhaps more important is the obvious absence of enforcement of safety standards. In fact not much is known about the existence of any mandatory operational guidelines for ownership of ferries and boats and the minimum standards that must be met to be in the business of ferrying people through the waters. Yet there are statutory authorities established to deal with that.

The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) was established in 1997 to manage the nation’s 3000 navigable waterways from the Nigeria/Niger and Nigeria/Cameroon borders to the Atlantic Ocean. These comprise Rivers Niger and Benue as well as the creeks, lagoons, lakes and intra-coastal waters. NIWA’s mandate also includes providing “regulatory, economical and operational leadership in the nation’s inland waterways system and develop infrastructural facilities for efficient intermodal transportation system that is safe, seamless and affordable”. But the presence of NIWA is hardly felt in the sector.

There is no doubt that water transportation is one clear source of de-congesting the roads in places where road travel could result in frustrating hours on the traffic. But we urge NIWA to enforce a universal safety standard. The absence of any search and rescue agencies often contribute to the high casualty figures recorded since the operators have little or no knowledge about what to do when faced with emergency situations.

Going forward, we reiterate our call that operational standard be enforced nationally so that all ferry and canoe operators have a universal safety standard. Provision of emergency services along the water ways is also worthy of consideration. The absence of such emergency agencies often contribute to the high casualty figures recorded when boat accidents occur since the operators have little or no knowledge about the first aid steps to take. All these and other safety measures would definitely go a long way in minimising the number of deaths on the nation’s waterways.