Last week, the head of Marine Police Unit, Mr James Apora, was quoted in the media saying that lack of regulations is hindering water transport safety. He made these remarks just days after the loss of a city tycoon’s son who drowned at marina beach.
The most surprising statement was, I quote “we (Marine Police Unit) had a meeting with officials from the Ministry of Works and Transport two weeks ago and we hope very soon the guidelines will be passed because without them, we cannot do massive enforcement.”
Water transport safety has been wanting for years regardless of the recent accidents. Over the years, many Ugandans have lost their lives because of lack of regulations and proper policing on ports and landing sites. For example from 1997 to 2014, more than 487 lives have been lost on Lake Albert alone according to police statistics. That is to say, 29 people die every year on a single lake!
The most recent tragedy was in March this year, where more than 108 people were reported dead on L. Albert and the cause of the accident was overloading. In fact, it was reported that the boat was loaded three times more than its capacity. These incidences will continue to occur if the government does not pick interest in regulating the water transport sector.
Apparently, regulation of water transport is the responsibility of Ministry of Works and Transport, through the Transport Licensing Board (TLB), but TLB lacks the resources to effectively license commercial vessels, or ensure that they are fit for service. In addition, infrastructure at ports and landing sites is generally in poor condition, and navigation aids are largely damaged or missing.
When Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) came into operation in July 2008, it took over ferry operations from Ministry of Works and Transport. It currently operates and maintains six ferry routes. However, most ferries are over 18 years old and need replacement.
As UNRA may be planning to develop more ferry routes including at Koome islands, Amuru, and Nangoma peninsula, the management and regulation of the sub-sector should be handed over to a new authority.
Whereas ferries and boats can be treated as extension to the road network (literally taken as moving bridges), UNRA is under staffed and over loaded with development of the road sub-sector. The government’s plan to appoint a ferry advisor within UNRA will not solve the problem because apart from ferries, water transport sector has many small-scale informal operators thus requiring a fully-fledged body to handle the sub-sector.
It should be noted that Inland water transport offers unit costs, which are much lower than those by the land-based modes, and the mode can play a significant and sometimes indispensable role in a country like Uganda where one sixth of the surface area is river, lake or swamp.
As we wait for the establishment of a new authority to guide the sub-sector, the government should;
• Fast track the establishment of the proposed Multi-Sector Transport Regulation Authority (MTRA) that will mainly be responsible for licensing, regulation and providing oversight of the transport sector. However, this should not stop the creation of an independent authority to manage water transport sub-sector similar to UNRA (for road sub-sector).
• Harmonise legislation for all lakes and rivers in the country. There are a number of Acts governing the inland water sector already in place including the Inland Water Transport Act, 1964, the Vessels Registration Act, 1964, the Ferries Act, 1964, and the EAC Lake Victoria Transport Act, 2007.
• Establish appropriate standards that are to be applied to ferry/boat services to ensure maritime safety on the lakes, rivers and swamps.
• Commercialise the ferry services to ensure sustainability and timely maintenance,
• Train staff to manage the sub-sector, if safe and efficient services are to be delivered.
• Develop accident rescue services at ports and landing sites and all ferries and boats must be equipped with adequate personal flotation devices plus communication systems.
• Empower the Marine Police Unit to keep monitoring the operations at ports, beaches and landing sites in the same way like traffic officers on roads.
• Keep records of utilisation (monitoring and evaluation) each landing site/port to enable the correct decisions on investment and expansion of the services to be made. This will also support research in the sub-sector.
Ultimately, the government should set out a long-term strategy where the individual characteristics of each mode (road, water, air and railway) can be used to best advantage. This will require co-ordination between modes where they can complement each other, together with inter-modal competition that will help boost efficiency and lower transport costs.