MARAD and the river deaths

Now that 10 persons have been confirmed dead in the horrendous January 22nd, 2013 collision of boats in the Mazaruni River, the Ministry of Public Works and the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) have an uphill battle to convince the public that there is effective regulation of riverain traffic.

With 16 people now confirmed dead in two collisions in the Pomeroon and Mazaruni rivers five weeks apart, resignations would have already been submitted or officials dismissed in other jurisdictions. That convention is apparently not observed here. Both deadly accidents have prompted assurances from MARAD that action is being taken to prevent a recurrence. But does this mean anything? Following the December 18, 2012 Pomeroon boat crash that featured reckless river piloting by both captains, it took MARAD 11 days before it made a detailed statement on the tragedy. Prior to that there had been numerous attempts by the media to elicit information from it. MARAD at that point was evidently not the type of agency that believed it was accountable to the public and the families that had been gutted by the disaster.  This attitude pre-dated the December 18 calamity.
As we noted in the December 24, 2012 editorial, Stabroek News had carried a report in its June 19, 2011 edition headed `Authorities silent on burgeoning speedboat accidents’ which said:

“The Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) and the Sea and River Defence Unit as well as the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) are tasked with enforcing regulations in relation to the safety of vessels, the conduct of operators of same, including passenger vessels and the general maintenance of public transportation ports along the main rivers.

“Over the past decade there have been a number of incidents involving passenger boats as well as private boats which operate in Guyana waters. While the river transportation regulations are said to be enforced by the regulators, river accidents continue to occur and no information is made public regarding the investigations into these.

“This newspaper has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to obtain a comment or information from MARAD and calls to the office of the head of the unit Claudette Rogers end with persons saying she is in a meeting or simply not available. Transport Minister Robeson Benn had noted at (a) press briefing late last year that MARAD, as the designated agency which overlooks the transportation sector, has been carrying out its mandate to ensure regulations relative to the sector are enforced.”

In its statement on December 29th, 2012 MARAD said the following in its defence: “Prior to this incident, Officials from the Maritime Administration Department paid visits and held awareness seminars with operators and passengers in Pomeroon, conducted boat inspections, and issued licences to operators.

“The Administration also distributed life jackets to some residents in Charity and Moruca areas.
“Periodic visits have been made by representatives from MARAD who are currently seeking to upgrade those vessels which transport passengers in that Region and to hold training sessions for boat operators.

“Although MARAD officials encountered some resistance from residents residing in the Pomeroon areas, we remain committed to our responsibility of ensuring safe operational practices as we strive to minimize maritime accidents on our waterways.”

It then ended its statement by saying that “Finally, there is an ongoing effort to make boat operators more aware of safety requirements and to improve on the quality of their services to the travelling public.”

It would be interesting to learn exactly what MARAD had been doing since the December 18 tragedy to prevent a recurrence because 35 days later the deadliest boat accident in recent decades occurred. Did MARAD saturate the well-travelled Mazaruni, Berbice, Essequibo, Pomeroon and Demerara rivers with warnings and check the river-worthiness of the craft and the qualifications of their operators?

Now, in its report released to the public on the January 22, 2013 crash via a statement in Parliament by Minister Robeson Benn (a lot quicker that in the case of the Pomeroon incident), MARAD is promising to deploy marine safety officers at all major marine centres across the country. “They will be actively monitoring and controlling the operations of boats in these areas,” the report said. Why wasn’t this done in all the years that MARAD has been in effect – a full 10 years – and does it now have the resources that will enable it to do this in all major marine areas? MARAD also now says that all vessels will have to prepare a crew and passenger list and deposit a copy with “a responsible person” at the points of departure and destination; all captains and bowmen will have to be licensed in accordance with Maritime Standards; and the use of life vests on all boats must be strictly enforced. The plan for a list of crew and passengers and its deposit with a “responsible person” does not seem to be workable and appears to be contrived to placate. It requires some legal status and inclusion in the regulations that govern MARAD. Seeing is believing and there will be many eyes out waiting to see what MARAD does in the wake of these two tragedies and whether it is more visible on the rivers.

Recklessness abounds in all parts of society and it has spilled onto the roads and into the rivers. There is no respect for rules. The only cure for this sickness on the rivers is for strict and routine monitoring of the waterways by a MARAD that is well-outfitted with boats (and fuel). Boat captains have to be properly trained and licensed. Each craft has to pass regular seaworthy inspections and be fully equipped with all the requisite safety gear.  Where transgressions occur as in the December 18 case, charges have to be brought and the culpable held fully accountable. The public will be carefully gauging the progress that MARAD makes towards these river safety requirements.

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