Boats: The death trap in waiting

In the recent past, there have been reports of boat accidents in Ugandan water bodies, the latest being the one on Lake Albert in March in which more than 100 people died. Sunday Monitor’s Bernard Kahwa explores marine safety rules.

Sunday May 11 2014

Passengers aboard a boat on Lake Victoria recently.

Passengers aboard a boat on Lake Victoria recently. Many people do not know the proper standards of boats. photo by Bernard Kahwa 

By Bernard Kahwa

Despite her numerous lakes and rivers, Uganda’s water transport network remains one of the most forgotten sectors in the country.

About 18 per cent of Uganda’s total land area is covered by fresh water bodies and swamps. Given her strategic location in the Great Lakes region, one would expect Uganda’s water transport to be one of the highly developed and maintained communication networks.
But most boats on Ugandan lakes are obsolete, unlicensed or uninsured and the landing sites are in deplorable state.

There is no authority or marine traffic police specifically charged with regulating water transport on our lakes and rivers. The existing marine police, with its thin strength, checks smuggling, rather than safety on the lakes. This unregulated water transport has resulted in many fatal boat accidents due to unchecked overloading, sailing on undesignated routes and use of defective boats and canoes.

March’s boat accident on Lake Albert which claimed more than 100 lives is one of a series of water accidents in the recent past.

The causes of these accidents are many
Absence of designated navigational channels
Magdy Mohmoud, an Egyptian marine engineer working in Kimsam Investment, a boat building company in Jinja, says Uganda’s water transport needs a hydrographic survey. This entails determining what lies below the lakes, depth of lakes and creation of navigational channels. The hydrographic survey provides basis for mapping water ways and ensuring safety of passengers as well as cargo on lakes.

Mr Mohmoud’s assertions are reinforced by another marine engineer Brian Kalibbala’s.
Kalibbala says hydrographic survey is important for marine safety and strategies. He says knowing what is underneath the lake helps one understand the type and size of rocks and how to bypass them when creating navigational channels.
Hydrographic surveys also guide creation of a control system to monitor boats on water. The control system shows the right time it is safe to navigate on a particular route. The survey tells the depth of the lake, direction of the wind and location of rocks in the lake.
“Hydrographic survey would significantly reduce accidents on lakes,” says engineer Kalibbala.

Standard of boats
There is no uniform standard for boats although there are basic features a boat should have.
Boney Ntambi, also an engineer at Kimsam Investment, says it all depends on the purpose for which the boat is to be used for.
He says each boat is made for a specific purpose considering weight and number of passengers on board. There are passenger boats, cargo boats and tourism boats. Each category is designed differently.

Ntambi says, however, that unfortunately, most boats in Uganda are used for even activities they were not designed to do and therefore become risky and vulnerable. He says the boats carry both cargo and passengers regardless of what they were built for. Ntambi adds that it’s one of the reasons overloading is one of the main reasons for boat capsizing in Uganda.

Kalibbala and Ntambi say there are basic provisions a good boat should have, such as navigational lights which enhance visibility at night or during periods of reduced visibility such as fog and rain. Navigational lights also make the boat visible from all angles.
What a boat should have
Standard boats should have sound signalling devices to alert other boaters or to signal the need for help in case of an emergency.

A boat should have flares which are used to send signals to the control centre or base for help in case of an emergency on water and a passive radar reflector (a metallic device) which is used to identify the position of the boat to other radar–equipped vessels.
Kimsam Investment has repaired several vessels for the Uganda Police Marine Departments and have made one boat.

According to Kalibbala, most boats which are currently used in Uganda do not conform to the required standards and lack most or all of the basics. Each boat is supposed to have sonar, a device for detecting obstacles underwater using sound wave, and echo-sounder that sends signals via satellite to the control centre, just like the way civil aviation authorities monitor planes. None of these exists in Uganda.

Mohmoud says most Ugandan boats lack navigational lights and navigators rely only on eyesight and torches to find their way at night.

Some of the most important things with water are refuelling centres. Like aircrafts, marine boats need specific points where they refuel before connecting to the next destination or terminal. “Refueling centres on lakes are very vital,” says Ntambi.

Uganda lacks refuelling centres on her water transport network. Navigators carry jerry cans of fuel on the boat to refill in case they run short of fuel in transit. This is risky as it increases the load weight on the boat.
Ntambi also discourages importation of boats. He says most imported boats are not suited for the lakes on which they are used. He says a boat is built according to the nature of the waters it is intended to be sued on. Thus it is important to be built from the lake where it is going to be used to determine its fuel consumption and adaptability to the water body.
Navigation by guessing
Mr Ali Mpango, who has been a boat navigator on Lake Victoria for six years, says he relies on personal experience and stars in the sky to guide his navigation.
Mpango operates a boat even at night, relying only on his eyesight. He says the biggest threat is wind which affects navigation.

Kalibbala points out the danger of relying on natural objects like trees at and stars for navigation. He says a mere change in weather like fog or mist can jeopardise visibility of the assumed features and make a navigator lose direction.
With a hydrographic survey, there would be marked navigational channels, dangerous zones to a void and direction of wind. The solar lights on water would provide visibility of navigational channels.

The fate of life jackets
Many travellers on Ugandan waters don’t wear life-jackets which is a basic protective measure.
Ntambi explains that there should be extra life-jackets in boats double the number of passengers on board. In case of emergencies, passengers tend to scramble for life jackets and thus there should be enough for each passenger to grab a second one.
However, he noted that passengers should wear life-jackets that can contain their weight in case a boat capsizes.

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