It all began innocently enough for the Kim Nirvana on a morning in July 2015 in the Philippines. The vessel with its human cargo was heading for the central islands of Camotes in Cebu province. It was a routine commute yet just a few minutes after the boat left Ormoc port on that fateful day, it capsized and sank. As it happens all too often in the Philippines and in almost all documented sea tragedies, the sinking took with it scores of human lives. Instinctively, it drew widespread recriminations coupled with what has become the national hobby of assigning blame for this latest ‘genocide.’
Photo above: A necessary evil...when travelling by ferry in the Phillipines, Indonesia and Bangladesh (above), passengers gamble their lives for a safe passage. (Istock photo)
In 2013, at least 113 people perished when the Thomas Aquinas sank; in 2008, the MV Princess of the Stars capsized in a storm and resulted in the deaths of 437 souls; 94 people died in 2004 when SuperFerry 14 caught fire; 389 lives were lost in 1988 when the MV Dona Marilyn was caught in Typhoon Unsang and sank; a figure dwarfed by the 1987 Dona Paz disaster which killed a staggering 4,341 people after a collision with an oil tanker.
Sea travel is one of the most hazardous of all businesses in the Philippines. It is not just the treacherous waters surrounding the country — though the tide of horrendous typhoons and cyclones has wreaked untold havoc on the nation in recent years — but the mere fact that sea travel is the only mode of transport connecting thousands of islets, makes it an indispensable danger Filipinos must endure.
Though it was an unusually balmy day when the Kim Nirvana went down, the very nature of sea travel in the Philippines has been haphazardly executed, monitored and audited, leading many to conclude that the only single assurance when boarding a ferry — be it in the Philippines, Indonesia or Bangladesh — is that making it to one’s destination is a roll of the dice.
Ferries in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh do not just carry people. Every manner of cargo — from livestock to flammable substances like copra — are herded into these often creaky, rickety craft bought from fire sales in other parts of Asia. And because these vessels are worn-out and second-rate to begin with, it’s easy to imagine their desultory state of repair and maintenance as they remain in service well beyond their expiry date.
It’s not just the age of the vessel that impacts on safety — the design of these vessels is at issue as well. More often than not, second-hand vessels bought from Japan and Korea, and built with the placid waters of those countries in mind, are ill-suited for the sometimes monstrous sea surges experienced around the Philippines and Indonesia.
Further, as was seen in the recent Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, the instance of unsecured cargo that was blamed for causing the vessel to tilt, demonstrates yet another failing of the South East Asian ferry system. Whether through a lack of proper ballast water to stabilize vessels, exceeding the capacity of the cargo hold, or simply inadequate maintenance and repairs, these are areas where the expertise and professional counsel of reputably trained naval architects should be sought out yet, surprisingly, they are excluded from discussions.
While geography and exposure to adverse weather conditions can play a role in making sea travel dangerous, it is too often the case that the direct cause of ferry disasters is human error and negligence. Still, technologically advanced weather monitoring stations in and around disaster-prone areas would be a welcome respite to forewarn sea travellers of impending danger.
Notwithstanding, so much more still depends on the cultivation of a safety culture. The lack of a safety culture is perhaps the most vexing of all.
Lots of talk, little action
A Regional Forum on Domestic Ferry Safety held in Bali, Indonesia in December 2011 openly denounced the unsafe practices of ferry operators and urged all governments to support and audit/monitor masters and operators to ensure they were fulfilling their safety obligations. Though Asian governments have in recent years, made a virtue of who can outclass the other on pledges to improve maritime safety, in practice, very little ever gets done.
Despite requests from the Inter-national Maritime Organization for greater adherence to overarching, supranational remits, ferry operators continue to be subject only to national legislation. "In many cases, such ferries are not even subject to regular inspections and that sometimes causes safety standards to drop rather rapidly," said BIMCO maritime analyst Peter Sands to this BC Shipping News writer. "Clearly, based on so many cases, proper adherence to specific limitations in terms of passenger and cargo has been disregarded. Also, the ISM Code is neither taken seriously nor applicable to such ferry trades."
To his delight, Sands found an ally in the cousin of the President of the Philippines. Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino told his countrymen recently of a compelling need to investigate if the nation’s maritime vessels are anywhere near seaworthiness. Visibly livid at the casual pace of inspections and investigations, he demanded to know of the navigational experience of concerned government agencies and why the request for seaworthy vessels has "remained unanswered through the years."
In one positive step, Manila has now mandated that passengers be required to wear life vests coupled with what are steeper fines for ferry safety violations. And although Indonesia passed laws years ago aimed at boosting ferry safety, those laws have hardly seen the light of day, pointing perhaps to what is an ingrained culture of inertia illuminated only in times of disaster.
Competence, in deficit always!
Despite well-meaning rancor from well-intentioned quarters, a check by BC Shipping News on the Philippine Register of Societies showed that unless contracted by the ship owner, class societies cannot even intervene to class vessels. And when it does intervene, its role is limited to determining the hull integrity and reliability of machineries and equipment through periodic surveys.
Statutory surveys and certifications covering matters such as load line, stability, safety equipment and radiotelegraphy, to name a few, are done by governments unless delegated to class societies."
The Register later went on to add that worse, there are many competing local class societies, allowing ship owners to "shop" for the cheapest, not the safest or most qualified.
Like naval architects and class societies, maritime insurers and surveyors are also excluded from the overall scheme of contributing to a safety culture in either the Philippines or Indonesia.
Not making it any better is the lack of public education and awareness campaigns to arouse public sensibility.
Little wonder that former Philippine Transport Secretary Elena Bautissta once told a U.S.-based international weekly that, "the main issue here is the safety culture of the Philippines." And nowhere has that remiss in abatement been more pronounced than when captains, prodded by fleet operators, take unconscionable risks by filling aging, decrepit vessels beyond safety limits and then set them to sail in the dangerous weather conditions and waters of the Philippines.
When Philippine ferry captains submit a document called the Master Oath of Safety Departure (MOSD) to the coast guard, it is incumbent upon them to accurately disclose the number of passengers on board. But as is almost always the case, that requirement is relegated to the back burner with the eventual result being an overloaded, capsized vessel and many deaths.
A common-sense solution
In tallying up all the factors that go into — or rather are absent — from the ferry sector to provide for safer sea travel, urgent action is required to avoid additional deaths. The IMO and international intervention is needed. Whether it is through an international inspection team, the implementation and enforcement of IMO regulations, or simply greater encouragement and collaboration between the international community and local ferry operators, we must find a way to trade in the old habits for a new-found sense of urgency aimed at fostering confidence in the Asian ferry system.
One common-sense solution that is herein presented for the reader’s consideration, would be to improve alarm systems aimed at avoiding overloading.
Between them, the Philippines and Indonesia are considered to be two of the world’s most widely diffusive nations with, cumulatively, more than 30,000 islets. As noted earlier, weather warning systems in more disaster-prone or frequently travelled areas would contribute greatly to the safety of ferry passengers, but given the complex geography, it would be impossible to adequately cover the full region, either by monitoring stations or coast guard agencies.
A more practical approach would be to install alarm systems on ferries, similar to those used in elevators, that immediately buzz when excess weight is detected. Those signals would then be transmitted to coast guard who could move in to restrain the vessel from moving out to sea.
This author approached Roberta Weisbrod, Executive Director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Organization, to discuss the concept of alarms to detect overloading. "It’s a great idea," she said, adding that there is already an Apple App — SCRAMP — designed for fishing boats which sounds an alarm when it senses destabilization.
"The Worldwide Ferry Safety Organization plans to commission research to explore how alarm systems can be [made] applicable for ferries. The same research would explore what other alarms are out there — including those devices that can count people electronically," said Weisbrod.
In exploring an alarm system, a conceivable approach would be to study the ship design of crew boats and offshore supply vessels wherein relevant features could be incorporated into ferry designs along with proper ramps for ro-ro vehicles and more secure cargo areas as well as proper procedures for loading and securing cargo. Each of these features, coupled with passenger-tracking, should incorporate alarms that are set off the minute capacity is breached.
Despite the rudimentary bent of the suggestion above, evidence still shows that close to 1,000 people die every year riding on the back of old, creaky vessels owned by operators who pay little or no heed to safety in jurisdictions where there is no enforcement of safety regulations.
Until the time comes when the neglect of safety is no longer tolerated, ferry travel in South East Asia will continue to be a gamble with one’s life.
Jaya Prakash is a Singapore-based maritime journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org