The National Assembly on Thursday approved a motion calling for the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate local maritime and riverain incidents since 1999 and make recommendations to ensure safe travel and future loss of life.
Over the last 18 months, 42 persons have died in riverain and coastal accidents and the death toll of 25 last year was highest in the last decade.
Opposition Leader David Granger moved the motion, which was carried by votes from opposition members while government members remained silent. “We feel that the COI is necessary because of the repetitive nature of fatal accidents on the rivers, because of the prevalence of lawlessness on our rivers and our coastal waters, and because of vulnerability of innocent commuters of these accidents. Therefore we call on this house to express concern over the continuing maritime and riverain accidents, which have plagued our rivers not only this year but for more than a decade,” Granger argued in his presentation on the motion, where he also expressed doubt over the ability of the efforts by the authorities..
But Public Works Minister Robeson Benn said setting up such an inquiry would lower the requirements for having such investigations even as he assured protecting the lives of Guyanese is a priority. Benn said he was not suggesting that it was not a serious matter “but if this is the new standard in this Parliament, I believe a COI is needed every other day.”
The motion resolved to have the National Assembly call upon the President, in accordance with the COI Act, to appoint a COI to inquire into maritime and riverain incidents which have occurred since January 1, 1999, “to determine the extent of such incidents and to make recommendation for safe travel and the protection of life on this country’s waterways and coastal waters.”
Granger, noting that the number of accidents have fluctuated over the years, said that the loss of even one more life cannot be afforded because of a lack of enforcement. “This Assembly is not satisfied that the Ministry of Public Works has the capability to prevent further unnecessary loss of life,” he said, while adding that APNU believes that a COI is necessary to determine precisely how many deaths have occurred in order to made recommendations to prevent further deaths from occurring.
He also said, “It is understandable that some members of government have no interest in this matter but we, Mr Speaker, are interested in the preservation of the lives of our citizens. Guyana’s river is our liquid history, the liquid history of this nation.”
He added, “The rivers are the arteries of our nation but things have changed. Our rivers are used by the people of the Hinterland to go to their school, to go to their farms. Places like Pomeroon, where there is no highway, no road. This complexity requires regulation. Without regulation there will be accidents and with accidents there will be death.”
Granger suggested that the existing laws may be adequate if they are “well enforced” but also pointed out that the River Navigation Act has its origins over a hundred years ago.
He also questioned the effectiveness of government’s awareness campaigns to address the situation.
He said, “This House is not satisfied with certification and education and the regulation of some boat operators. My information is that some of the operators cannot even spell “boat” much less qualify to be certified to operate those boats. This House is not satisfied that there is sufficient infrastructure to save lives and to prevent accidents.”
Further, he said “…This House is not satisfied that the Ministry of Public Works is capable of investigating accidents, of bringing offenders to the courts and of providing adequate representation to the victims of those accidents. This is why this motion is being brought before the House.”
‘A lot of efforts’
After Granger’s presentation, Benn responded, followed by a few other speakers from the opposition.
Benn explained that his ministry and the Maritime Administration work “with the Coast Guard and maritime police, who have responsibilities” to ensure safety and he said they have been working very hard to bring about improvements despite challenging circumstances because of the tremendous growth that has taken place.
The minister noted that “over the last five years alone, the amount of speedboats/water taxi are more than double on our rivers that the number of journeys they undertake and the number of cargo and people they take have more than doubled.” As a result, he said “there are risks, there are incidents, [and] there are circumstances which we have been working at very hard….”
In respect to Granger’s comment that the ministry does not have the capability to prevent unnecessary loss of life, Benn said, “I would want to reject the suggestion that he has been putting that we do not have the capacity at the Ministry of Public Works and the Maritime Department to take account of this problem.” Benn pointed out that “…we have made a lot of efforts. The boats were redesigned. We have also put in place tops on the boats.
They are covered, there are life jackets, both for adults and children. There are regular inspections. There are persons at the stelling to count and record the passengers on each and every boat, never in the history of the country.” Benn said that the laws and regulations that Granger identified are still valid, while adding that i
In order to increase safety awareness on the waterways, the authorities have “taken the trouble effort to engage with our people in the handing out of leaflets, brochures and having our river navigation people go out and have seminars with them, weekly visits …all to improve safety consciousness.”
He also said that in addition to the regular weekly patrols on the Cuyuni/Mazaruni, Pomeroon, Barima and Essequibo rivers, they have been putting in additional safety signs on the Mazaruni River, particularly on the Pomeroon and Moruca Rivers.
Training to have young people become maritime inspectors is also underway to increase riverain safety and currently they have 23 persons who are being trained in this regard and are being deployed to the Essequibo and Berbice rivers, Benn added. This, he said, did not exist before.
APNU MP Winston Felix voiced his support of the motion, saying that the frequency of river accidents must be attributed to the lack of capacity with the Maritime Administration and the police force. He said that the lack of warning signs on boats is also one of the main reasons why they collide. Felix said that the lack of warning signs creates a situation where one boat does not notice the presence of another, hence collisions occur.
Therefore, he argued, safety should be a priority of the government and resources should be placed where they are best utilised. Meanwhile, AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan also spoke in support of Granger’s motion, telling the Assembly that in order to understand the state of affairs in any sphere of activity in a modern democracy, a COI is required.
Ramjattan said a COI can help get information to ensure that they correct things and have minimal deaths in the country’s waters. He added that the COI will also give facts about the Maritime Administration, including whether it is doing its job. If a COI will result in one less death, he said, we must understand that.
In addition to Ramjattan and Felix, Shadow Minister of Public Works Joseph Harmon also voiced support for the motion.
Harmon said that reports on the accidents have pointed to speeding and poor visibility, among other factors, as being responsible for causing them. However, he also stated that the majority of the reports on these incidents state that the investigation is incomplete. He also noted that security and safety must concern all, including MPs, who are required to visit riverain communities and can put themselves in harm’s way.