x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Philippines ferry disaster was a needless tragedy

Those who use shipping lanes in the Philippines must resolve to tackle systemic corruption and to introduce an unstinting culture of safety on all vessels

Friday's ferry disaster in the Philippines has so far claimed more than 30 lives and, with so many still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The greatest tragedy in this sorry state of affairs is, of course, that it was avoidable.

That it was a needless disaster became clear after the coastguard announced that one of the two vessels involved in the accident had violated shipping lane rules while moving in and out of port in Cebu, the Philippines' second city.

Ferries are one of the more popular and sometimes the only means of transport for millions of people around a country made up of more than 7,100 islands.

Unfortunately, rule violations are also frequent. This, combined with poor maintenance of ageing vessels, lack of safety standards and weak enforcement where they do exist, helps explain why accidents remain relatively commonplace.

Seven people were killed in June when the Lady of Mount Carmel ferry sank near the Masbate island. Last year, an equal number of people were killed when a wooden-hulled ferry sank off the coast of Palawan island. Forty-eight people perished in a total of three boat accidents in 2009. A year before that, a large ferry sank off the island of Sibuyan, leaving about 800 dead.

Thomas Aquinas, the passenger vessel involved in this latest disaster, was 40 years old when it sank. The other ship, Sulpicio Express 7, is owned and operated by one of the country's largest shipping companies, an organisation which has been involved in a long list of shipping disasters, claiming more than 5,000 lives, in the past 26 years.

Even though safety regulations in larger ferries have improved since the first of those incidents in 1987, clearly more work needs to be done. The enforcement of minimum requirements - such as making life-jackets mandatory on all passenger vessels - would make a difference.

A further step would be to tighten regulations that hold the managers and directors of shipping firms to account when incidents happen.

Perhaps if their liberty were at stake, the owners and managers would take more measures to ensure their staff followed safety procedures more fully.