Avoidable deaths on the waterways

Water transportation is relatively cheap in moving goods and persons when compared to rail and road. Maintenance cost in rail and road transport is quite high but maintenance cost of water transport is low.

Heavy and bulky goods can be transported easily at little cost through water transport. During natural calamities like flood and rains, when rail and road transport is disrupted, relief operations can be operated through water transport.

Large cities of the world that have canals and coastlines readily encourage use of the waterways to decongest their roads. For instance, relieve could be provided against the perennial Lagos traffic snarl if water transportation had been well developed in the state. The scope of water transportation also covers cultural events, tourist attraction and family treats.

Notwithstanding its numerous advantages, however, movement of goods and persons on the waterways in Nigeria and other undeveloped countries is fast becoming a nightmare. Boat accidents are more frequent and more severe, while overcrowding goes hand in hand with lax safety regulations.

Passenger boats in developing countries like Nigeria are often old vessels, sometimes repurposed to operate in waterways for which they were not originally designed. The boats are often overcrowded, which can throw them off balance or make them top heavy and more prone to mishaps. And since most crewmembers are inadequately trained, they are uncertain of how to respond in the event of a disaster, exacerbating the problems. Moreover, government safety regulations are far less stringent and mostly go unenforced.

Nigeria has had its own share of tragic mishaps on the waterways in recent times. The past three years have been particularly dreadful for inland water transportation commuters with a major mishap claiming three lives at Navy Town, Lagos in January 2014. In March of the same year, a commercial boat capsized on a canal on 4th Avenue, 42 Road, Festac Town, Lagos, resulting in the death of no fewer than 18 passengers. The same month, nearly 100 people perished when a passenger boat that set off from neighbouring Benin Republic capsized off Cross River State.

On April 2, 2014 in Majidun River in Ikorodu, Lagos, no fewer than eight people reportedly lost their lives while local divers rescued several others in a boat accident. The boat, which departed Ebute-Ero jetty on Lagos Island at about 5:30pm for the Majidun Jetty in Ikorodu reportedly ran into a large underwater object, causing it to capsize.

On December 26, 2013, a boat carrying about 50 passengers on the Buruku River in Buruku Local Government of Benue state capsized, killing some of its passengers. Elsewhere, a boat overloaded with passengers and goods travelling on the Niger River overturned, killing 42 people with hundreds others missing. The boat with an estimated 150 passengers on board broke into two after setting off from Malilli village in Niger State.

A number of fatalities have also been recorded this year. On January 21, one person reportedly died while two others were critically injured when a Victoria Island-bound boat from Ikorodu collided with another one deep inside the Lagos Lagoon. On January 30, no fewer than seven people died while twelve others sustained injuries when another boat capsized at Badore in the Ajah area of Lagos. On February 4, at least eight people drowned in Jigawa State when a canoe ferrying traders capsized and panicked passengers in another boat jumped into the river.

Government at all levels must be concerned that deaths through boat and ferry accidents on the nation’s waterways have become routine. The authorities cannot continue to watch as lives are lost daily to poor state of boats and canoes plying the waterways, overloading, poorly trained operators and lack of regards for safety measures coupled with poor search and rescue measures.

There is therefore an urgent need for the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), which is the body constitutionally saddled with the responsibility of managing Nigeria’s vast inland waterway resources, to institute decisive measures to stem the ugly tide.

NIWA must register all passenger boats and ferries plying the waters. The owners and operators of the vessels must also be registered and made to undertake regular mandatory trainings on safety regulations and emergency response. The agency must strengthen its monitoring capacity to ensure that only seaworthy crafts are allowed on the waterways while overloading must not be allowed. Passengers must also mandatorily don life jackets while commuting on the waterways.

NIWA should collaborate with relevant stakeholders to establish search and rescue volunteer groups in all marine communities across the country. It also needs to intensify and regularise its awareness campaigns on modern marine safety measures.

The agency must not hesitate to sanction and blacklist operators that fail to comply with safety regulations, including the order banning night travels on the waterways. It must also collaborate with state agencies like the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) to promote safety of water transportation.

Nigeria has recorded enough deaths in its water transport industry and no effort must be spared in stopping this avoidable loss of lives.

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