The authorities must ensure that minimum safety standards are enforced

No fewer than 40 persons died recently in a boat accident along River Katsina Ala in Buruku local government area of Benue State. But it was a tragedy that could have been prevented if the boat handlers took necessary precautions. The accident was caused by overloading and the failure of the passengers to put on life jackets. Last week in Bonny Island, Rivers State, two students and an aged woman lost their lives also because of the negligence and irresponsibility of the boat handlers and indeed their scant regard for human lives. A prevailing fierce storm was not taken into account when they decided to sail out – and ended the lives of the passengers prematurely.

Earlier in the month, no fewer than three passengers were confirmed dead by the Lagos State government when a passenger boat capsized after two wooden boats collided. Something must be done urgently about these recurring tragedies if we are not to continue harvesting cheap deaths on our waterways.

The National Inland Water Authority (NIWA) has been repeatedly accused of not living up to its responsibility. It certainly could do more. 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. NIWA’s mandate includes providing regulatory, economic and operational leadership in the nation’s inland waterways system and to develop infrastructural facilities for efficient inter-modal transportation system that is safe, seamless and affordable. It is apparent that the agency has failed to live up to expectations.

To be sure, boat accidents are inevitable, particularly in the creeks and coastlines given the fact that the people living in those areas have no alternative means of transportation. But the rate at which they occur is exceedingly high and the fatalities unacceptable. In the absence of other reliable transportation system, people tend to pile into whatever watercraft available to get to their destinations. Besides some places in Lagos perhaps, 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 or canoe 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 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 hardly life jackets on board is a sure guarantee that casualty is bound to be high when accidents occur.

As we stated repeatedly, 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 in the traffic. But we urge NIWA to enforce a universal safety standard. It should be adequately funded to provide vital infrastructural services along the waterways. The absence of emergency agencies often contributes to the high casualty figures since the operators have little or no knowledge of the first aid steps to take when accidents occur.