The authorities should enforce minimum standards for water transportation

The rising number of deaths occasioned by boat mishaps on the nation’s waterways has caught the attention of President Bola Tinubu. Last week, he ordered a ‘thorough and comprehensive investigation’ into the recurring tragedies. For almost two decades there has hardly been a month without boat accidents and often with heavy casualty figures. No fewer than a thousand people reportedly lost their lives to these accidents with the victims mostly rural dwellers.  

 Most Nigerians living in the creeks and coastlines have no alternative means of transportation. Because of that, people tend to pile into whatever watercraft happens to be moving towards their destinations. But the death tolls are getting too high. In a particular incident two years ago, the boat taking a bride-to-be along with other family members capsized along the Benue River killing all but three of the passengers. The bride’s body was never recovered.  

It is a notorious fact that there is hardly any ferry, canoe or the so-called ‘flying boat’ that keeps to the exact passenger number specification. Many of these small wooden canoes most often carry passengers far beyond their capacity. 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 capsizing.  

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

Some of the accidents also result from the carelessness of relevant authorities. Last week, the Niger State Emergency Management Agency (NSEMA) spokesman, Hussain Ibrahim, disclosed the cause of the latest boat accident that claimed 30 lives.“The people stay up on the stream of Jebba Dam and the river was recently dredged to create more space for carrying parcels of the water. In the process of this dredging, some trees were cut down but not completely down,” according to Ibrahim. “So, when the water rises, you will not see these tree stumps. The boat had a collision with a tree stump, and it was what caused the breakage of the boat and caused it to capsize.” 

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. However, the operational standard should be enforced nationally so that all ferry and canoe operators have a universal safety standard. There should also be regular inspection of these boats just as motor vehicles are inspected for their road worthiness to detect dilapidated and rickety ones which constitute serious hazard.  

Provision of emergency services along the waterways is also important. The absence of such emergency agencies often contributes to the high casualty figures recorded when boat accidents occur since the operators have little or no knowledge about first aid steps to take when faced with emergency situations. All these and other safety measures would go a long way in minimising the number of deaths on the nation’s waterways.  

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