EDITORIAL | 2021 – A bad year for ferry fatalities

Personnel from Indonesia's Basarnas national search and rescue agency carry the remains of one of the 11 people who were killed after the Ro-Pax ferry Yunicee capsized and sank off Bali on June 29, 2021. (Photo: Basarnas)
Personnel from Indonesia's Basarnas national search and rescue agency carry the remains of one of the 11 people who were killed after the Ro-Pax ferry Yunicee capsized and sank off Bali on June 29, 2021. (Photo: Basarnas)

Following an excellent performance in 2020 when the global ferry fatality toll was the lowest since the Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident database commenced in 1966, there have, tragically, been more than five times as many deaths in 2021.

There were 264 fatalities in 2020 and 1,380 in 2021. Why was there such a dramatic increase? In 2020 the world was still very Covid-19 averse and travelling, generally, was restricted. The next year saw restrictions reduced, if not eliminated so more people were travelling. That, however, does not explain why the dramatic increase in fatalities occurred. Some countries, clearly, just became more careless.

Which countries?

Our old favourites – the Philippines, China, and Indonesia – again performed well with few, if any, fatal accidents and few fatalities. However, some countries backslid badly. Bangladesh, for example, increased from two accidents causing 58 fatalities to five accidents and 279 known fatalities. The DR Congo, admittedly a completely failed state, went from one accident and 12 fatalities to four accidents and 570 fatalities. Of course, the tolls in that country could be much worse. We simply don't know of some of the accidents.

Nigeria, too, had a very bad 2021 with three accidents and 225 fatalities compared with four accidents and 35 fatalities the year before. Clearly, something is very wrong in that poor mismanaged country.

As in most years, there were several outliers with Peru, India, and Madagascar each suffering ferry accidents resulting in 60 to 88 fatalities during 2021.

Why?

Overall, in 2020 there were 20 accidents resulting in 264 fatalities whereas in 2021, 26 accidents led to 1,380 fatalities.

<em>Rescuers respond to a ferry capsizing that had left six people dead in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, on November 23, 2021. (Photo: Sri Lanka Navy)</em>
Rescuers respond to a ferry capsizing that had left six people dead in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, on November 23, 2021. (Photo: Sri Lanka Navy)

The reasons for the accidents were little different from in previous years. Collisions, allisions, capsizes, and disintegrations were the predominant problems by far. All can only be due to the human errors of not keeping a good lookout, overloading, and putting to sea in unseaworthy and usually unstable vessels with inadequate or no lifesaving equipment aboard.

Prevention

The tried and proved prevention methods are well known. Where applied in developed countries such as China and the Philippines, they have worked and worked well. Basically, they require government provided education and government enforced discipline.

Both carrots and sticks are required but rational regulation and rigid enforcement are very effective. The new IMO Model Regulations for Domestic Ferry Safety should help when they are brought into force shortly. But they will only be effective if the governments concerned take them seriously and enforce them.

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