The authorities must ensure that minimum safety standards are enforced

No fewer than 12 persons died last Sunday in a boat accident in the Ilashe area of Lagos while some other passengers are still unaccounted for. The accident was caused by overloading and the failure of the passengers to put on standard life jackets. This is a recurring tragedy for which something needs to be done urgently if we are not to continue harvesting cheap death on our waterways.

Unfortunately, the Managing Director of Lagos State Waterways Authority, Mr Abisola Kamson has attributed the persistent problem to the refusal by the National Inland Water Authority (NIWA) to allow the judgment of the Appeal Court granting Lagos the control of her waterways to take effect. Ever since the judgment was pronounced, according to Kamson, “NIWA has ejected all State Water Guards monitoring standards from all federal-owned jetties”. This is against the background that Lagosians are compelled to wear standard life jackets at all times on the state waterways.

We agree with the Lagos State Government that NIWA should be held accountable for most of the accidents on our waterways because the agency has not lived up to its responsibility. Established in 1997, NIWA manages 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 include providing “regulatory, economic and operational leadership in the nation’s inland waterways system and develop infrastructural facilities for efficient inter-modal transportation system that is safe, seamless and affordable”.

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. But because of this absence of other reliable transportation system, people tend to pile into whatever watercraft happens to be moving towards the direction they are going. Yet, not much is known about the existence of any mandatory operational guidelines and the minimum standards that must be met to be in the business of ferrying people through the waters.

 There are of course other safety concerns. It is, for instance, a notorious fact that there is hardly any ferry, canoe or the so-called “flying boat” that keeps to the exact passenger number specification. 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 various destinations. Consequently when the canoes encounter stormy conditions along the water, the sheer weight of the human cargo and other luggage would make them easily susceptible to capsize.

Aside from 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. Furthermore, the fact that there are no life-jackets on board is a sure guarantee that casualty is bound to be high.

There is no doubt that water transportation could be one clear source of de-congesting the roads in places where road travel could result in spending frustrating hours on the traffic. But we urge NIWA to enforce 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 since the operators have little or no knowledge about the first aid steps to take when faced with emergency situations. All this and other safety measures would definitely go a long way in minimising the number of deaths on the nation’s waterways.