For those who monitor worldwide boat safety, the fact that one of the latest ferry catastrophes occurred in Tanzania, killing about 225 people, did not come as a shock.
Tanzania has one of the worst ferry safety records in the world, according to the Worldwide Ferry Safety Assn. in New York. There have been several deadly accidents on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake and a vital economic hub in East Africa, and off the nation’s coast in the Indian Ocean.
Ferries in Tanzania are “exceedingly dangerous,” said Neil Baird, a retired maritime publisher who has been tracking ferry accidents for decades. “It’s human error. Criminal incompetence would be the best way of putting it.”
But safety on domestic ferries is hardly Tanzania’s problem alone. Hundreds of people die every year in ferry accidents around the world and nearly 21,000 people have died in ferry accidents since 2000, according to the Worldwide Ferry Safety Assn.
While many of the fatalities take place on boats in the developing nations of the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Tanzania, wealthier countries, like South Korea, have had deadly ferry incidents in recent years as well. In 2014, the Sewol ferry sank en route from Incheon on South Korea’s northwestern coast to the resort island of Jeju, resulting in more than 300 deaths — many of them students.
One of the most common causes of fatal ferry accidents is overloading or overcrowding — officials in Tanzania reportedly have said a preliminary investigation found that overloading appeared to be the main reason for the tragedy last week. Bad weather, old or substandard vessels and poor crew training are also regular factors.
Overcrowding can influence the stability of a vessel and people’s ability to get out of danger, but there’s a strong financial component to the matter, said Roberta Weisbrod, executive director of the ferry safety group.
“People make more money if they overload,” Weisbrod said. “In some countries, we’ve found that the price of tickets is set artificially low by the government…. In order to even cover costs, there’s this incentive to overload.”
The cost of a ferry ticket varies widely depending on the country and length of the journey.
Though the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency responsible for marine shipping, regulates passenger ships that travel in international waters, like cruise ships, domestic ferries do not fall under its watch.
The IMO has issued safety standards for domestic ferries, which some countries have used in forming their own regulations, and the body has worked with individual governments on ferry safety, including the Tanzanian government, to improve the safety of passengers traveling on Lake Victoria.
The organization emphasizes the importance of avoiding overcrowding and keeping an accurate passenger manifest in those guidelines, and has also made a safety video that it distributes to ferry terminals around the world which warns customers about the dangers of boarding an overcrowded ferry.
The guidelines also urge that ships purchased secondhand be evaluated before being put into use for ferry service, and that voyages should be planned and tracked carefully as they progress, among other measures.
But many countries don’t make use of the IMO standards, Baird said, which he chalks up to “corruption and political interference.”
“IMO has no ability to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign member states,” Baird said. “They can only work by persuasion — or ‘moral-suasion,’ let’s say.”
A spokeswoman for the IMO said that the organization does not have any way to track whether or not countries are adopting the guidelines, but if a government asks for its help assessing its domestic ferry safety, the IMO can assist.
Interferry, which represents the global ferry industry, has been working to improve ferry safety in some countries, said the group’s CEO, Mike Corrigan.
The group has participated in regional safety meetings across Asia to encourage governments to commit to better regulation enforcement, make sure ships are safe, and submit accident investigations to the IMO.
“Our long-term aim is to educate not only operators, but also customers, on crucial safety precautions,” Corrigan said in an email.
The Worldwide Ferry Safety Assn., for its part, has focused on safety training for ferry crew members, starting with a pilot project in Bangladesh in 2006 that taught local crews safety skills such as managing boat stability and improving how to help people get off a vessel. The program is being used as a model for a training program by a large ferry operator in the Philippines, according to the association.
The association also sponsors a yearly design competition for students around the world to come up with safe and inexpensive ferry models. Students have designed ferries tailored to local conditions in places such as Thailand, the Singapore Strait and Bangladesh, and the association is considering focusing on Lake Victoria for one of its competitions.
In the latest tragedy in Tanzania, the ferry Nyerere capsized Thursday, a short distance from shore near the small island of Ukara in Lake Victoria, killing dozens of people.
The ferry, which was operated by a government agency, had an official capacity of 101 passengers, but more than double that number of people were aboard when it overturned.
Survivors said that in addition to carrying too many people, the vessel was loaded with cars and trucks, sacks of maize and baggage that toppled onto passengers as the ferry made a sharp turn shortly before capsizing.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who declared four days of national mourning, said it appeared the vessel was overloaded and referred to “negligence” in the ship’s handling. He ordered the arrests of several members of the ferry’s management and Monday suspended the head of the agency in charge, local media reported.
Baird and Weisbrod said there have been improvements in some parts of the world where consumers have increasingly demanded safer ferries, but that fundamental and lasting changes have been elusive.
“There’s a lot that has to be done,” Weisbrod said. “Sometimes we think it’s looking good, and then something like this happens.”
Mahr is a special correspondent.