There is need to enforce safety standards on our waterways

No fewer than 10 persons died recently when a wooden boat hit a stump on the River Niger and broke into two. Some 25 people are still missing. The boat was ferrying traders to Warra, Ngaski Local Council Area of Kebbi State from Malale market in Borgu Local Council Area of Niger State when it capsized in what has become a familiar story on the nation’s waterways. As usual, the passengers were not wearing life jackets. To that extent, this is another wake-up call on those manning the sector to enforce the minimum standards in the business of ferrying people across our waters.

Questions indeed must be asked about the role of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) which 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 while NIWA’s mandate 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”.

While critical stakeholders in the Master Mariners Association of Nigeria (MMAN) have had to cry out on the need to address the situation, nothing seems to have been done in that direction. Indeed, over 40 persons reportedly died in a boat accident in the same area in September, 2013.

Given the frequency with which people now die on the waterways, it is time that the management of NIWA stood up to its responsibility.

There is no doubt that water transportation could be one clear source of decongesting the roads in places where road travel could result in spending frustrating hours in traffic. But there should be a regular inspection of these boats just like motor vehicles are inspected for their road worthiness in order to detect dilapidated and rickety ones which constitute serious hazard to human lives. Provision of emergency services along the waterways is also worthy of consideration. All these and other safety measures would definitely go a long way in minimising the number of deaths on the nation’s waterways.

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. Because of this, people tend to pile into whatever watercraft happens to be moving towards the direction they are going. While in some instances boats that were constructed to carry not more than 20 persons could be loaded with 50 or more passengers, especially at peak periods when people are in a hurry to get back to their homes or places of business. Consequently when the canoe encounters stormy conditions along the water, the sheer weight of the human cargo and other luggage would make it easily susceptible to capsize.

Besides, 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. Furthermore, the fact that, in most cases, there is hardly life jackets on board are sure indicator that casualty rate is bound to be large.

We believe that with the frequency of some of these fatalities, the authorities of our waterways have failed in their duties. We therefore call on NIWA and other agencies that are responsible for manning our waterways to be alive to their responsibilities. Travelling by water should not be a suicide mission.