For a fleeting few days, perhaps even weeks, the mounting body count from the MV Nyerere disaster – officially more than 200 – is likely to focus attention of the lack of maritime safety in East Africa.
Because of their carrying capacity – which means shocking numbers of dead – vessels such as MV Nyerere, which capsized off Mwanza on September 20 and the MV Bukoba, which went down with more than 800 people in May 1996, draw attention to the reality that death is routine in East Africa’s inland waters.
At one point, Lake Rescue, a volunteer group that has been trying to promote a safety culture on Lake Victoria, put the annual loss of life there in excess of 5,000.
Most of these deaths occur on small passenger and fishing vessels that barely make a headline, perhaps because they are so frequent that they are no longer seen as an abnormal event.
But death on regulated water transport such as happened in the MV Nyerere and MV Bukoba cases, reveals disturbing gaps in the region’s maritime regime.
One area of weakness is search and rescue, the other is regulation. In both events, the number of victims remained fluid to the extent that the final toll figures are mere estimates. This is because is no robust system for ensuring that operators stay faithful to the manufacturer’s recommended carrying capacity, hence the routine overloading.
The question of numbers featured prominently in this past week’s tragedy as the death toll quickly passed the vessel’s design capacity and yet there were survivors.
Designed to carry just 430 passengers, when the counting stopped, 894 passengers died when MV Bukoba went down in 25 metres of water within sight of the shore. Yet despite remaining buoyant for more than 24 hours, all those lives were lost because there was no way to achieve a safe rescue.
Although it did not involve loss of life, the loss of MV Kabalega, a Uganda wagon ferry, after a collision with sister ship MV Kaawa in May 2005, offers insights into what ails maritime management in East Africa.
An inquiry later established that both Ugandan vessels were at the time of the incident being manned by untrained crew, lacked working communication gear and valid marine insurance.
Regional governments obviously place a higher value on money than human life. Hence while they all jealously guard their fishing zones in the lake, there is no comparable lifeguard service active in any of the three countries.
The colonial-era navigation infrastructure has long been non-functional and moving about the lake is largely a matter of trial and error.
The latest tragedy is an appropriate starting point for the search for accountability for what happens in the lake. At some point, the Lake Victoria Basin Commission said it had secured a $35.8 million grant to improve safety.
Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are supposed to establish a Lake Victoria Maritime Communications and Transport System that would include regional maritime rescue communication centres in Mwanza, Kisumu and Entebbe.
The centres are to be supported by 22 emergency search and rescue stations distributed around the lake, equipped with fast rescue boats and trained crews. What progress has been made towards this?