Happy birthday Mattias! Celebrating my 52nd birthday, just getting ready to eat dinner with my family the phone rings. Its my friend and colleague Thore asking if I have heard about the sinking ferry on Lake Victoria. Short thereafter reports and pictures starts rolling in through my WhatsApp. A horrifying story starts to unravel. Right now the bodycount has risen to 227 people, and still many are missing. That was a birthday gift I could have been spared…
In the wake of the accident the “blame game” starts. Arrests and prosecutions has started, and the Tanzanian president has dissolved the board of the ferry company. I would however like to urge the powers that be to reflect somewhat over the development since the last major accident back in 1996, the MV Bukoba accident, killing well over 800 people. We have seen several workshops, some with technical assistance from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). We have seen a handful of consultancies twisting and turning the safety structures – or rather the lack thereof. We have seen dozens of patrol/rescue boats donated to the governing bodies of the lake, and we have had a joint lakeside set of regulations governing the lake for over 10 years – the 2007 Lake Victoria Transport Act, clearly stipulating how to act on the lake. Last but not least, we have had NGO´s, among others Safe Waters/National Lake Rescue Institute, struggling to get accepted and allowed to contribute.
There is no simple solution to avoid or tackle accidents like this. No emergency response mechanism in the world can manage a rapid capsize of a ferry filled with people of which many cannot swim. For coastal waters in Sweden a person in distress should be reached and assisted within 60 or 90 minutes depending on where the accident happens. With decent safety awareness, taking precaution, and abiding the regulations in place this is a manageable time. Without awareness, precaution, or enforced regulation – even 9 minutes is too long.
I think it would be prudent to acknowledge the role of regional governments and governing institutions, accept that the disaster that struck the people of Tanzania September 20th 2018 should have been prevented 20 years ago, stop the blaming of others (John 8:7, When they continued to question Him, He straightened up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”) roll up the sleeves, put the lifejackets on and go to work. First and foremost by:
- Soft but stringent enforcement of safety regulations, combined with community awareness programs, including the business community. This is the most important task of all, a paradigm shift in safety culture is of utmost importance – starting from above. The Government has to start govern.
- Communication and coordination facilities for emergencies – maritime rescue coordination centres – nice to have, but useless without point one.
- Search and Rescue capability, locally embedded and accepted, and able to work with the surrounding communities with awareness issues. The latter probably being the work that saves most lives. Again, without the two previous points this one is of limited use.
- Embracing non-governmental initiatives, see them as supplements rather than competition. There are numerous examples around the world of publik private cooperation between governments and NGO´s in this field. My own home country might be the most extreme, with the NGO managing more than 80% of all maritime emergencies with, the help of more than 2000 highly professional volunteers.
Let us find the structure that works for East Africa, let us not waste more time, let’s make the lakes safe for all. Now.