BEYOND THE BENUE BOAT TRAGEDY

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There is need to sanitise the country’s waterways

It is a big shame that the number of deaths occasioned by boat mishaps on the nation’s waterways keep mounting. While Nigerians may not be paying attention, hardly a week passes without reports of a boat accident and often with heavy casualty figures. The latest of such tragedies occurred last Wednesday evening at the Buruku crossing of River Katsina Alla in Benue State, claiming no fewer than 20 lives with 17 of them being motorcycle riders.

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. It is equally a known fact that because of the absence of other reliable transportation system people tend to pile into whatever watercraft happens to be going towards their destinations. But the challenge is that this often necessitates overcrowding when very small wooden canoes carry passengers far beyond their capacity. That indeed may have been responsible for the latest tragedy in Benue State.

In recounting how the tragedy happened, the boat operator said when many people came with their motorcycles to board, there were pleas for some to wait for another boat, “but our plea turned on deaf ears”. Halfway across the river, the engine of the boat stopped and when it was attacked by waves, it immediately capsized. “The passengers in the boat were men and women as well as youths. Some of them could not swim; so, they were submerged in the deep water. It was a horrible sight”, the boat operator said.

As tragic as that may seem, there is indeed hardly any ferry, canoe or the so-called “flying boat” that keeps to the exact passenger number specification. 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 since not much is known about the existence of any mandatory operational guidelines for ownership of ferries and boats.

That explains why 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 places. 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. Furthermore, the fact that there are no life-jackets on board is a sure guarantee that casualty are bound to be high.

There is no doubt that water transportation could be one clear source of decongesting the roads, particularly in places like Lagos. However, there is an urgent need for the enforcement of operational standards so that all ferry and canoe operators across the country’s waterways have a universal safety standard. There should also be regular inspection of these boats just like motor vehicles are inspected and deemed road worthy or marked “off the road”, in order to detect dilapidated and rickety boats which constitute serious hazard to human lives. Provision of emergency services along the waterways is also worthy of consideration. The absence of such emergency agencies often contribute to the high casualty figures recorded when boat accidents occur.

All these and other safety measures would definitely go a long way in minimising the number of deaths arising from boat accidents on the nation’s waterways.