Zanzibar acts to rectify marine disaster mess

Friday September 7 2012

passenger and cargo ferry services.  Many a time, the government has taken the flak for allegedly doing little to end lawlessness, corruption and unprofessionalism—all of these singled out as the cause of frequent marine accidents.
On the first anniversary of the sinking of MV Spice Islander 1 tomorrow, this blot on Zanzibar’s history appears to have rattled authorities.

The government is set to unveil, later in the year, new rules it hopes will open a new and clean chapter. In both Pemba and Unguja, there is a palpable sense of urgency in the government as well as the private sector, both seeking ways to put a close to the tainted image of the country’s marine sub-sector.  

The issue has become even more urgent in the wake of a damning report by the commission of inquiry into the sinking of MV Spice Islander 1 on the night of September 9, 2011, killing a record 1,529 people. The accident at Nungwi was followed by another on July 19 this year in which 136 people were killed when MV Skagit capsized at Pungume.    

The commission headed by Judge Abdulhakim Ameir Issa  not only confirmed the huge death toll in the Nungwi disaster but also unearthed the rot that has turned some local marine vessels into potential death traps.

The minister of State for Disaster Management, Mr Mohammed Aboud Mohamed, told The Citizen on Saturday that the government was serious in its resolve to reverse the poor state of marine transport infrastructure.

“We are reviewing the laws and will also invest directly in adequate and competent personnel and equipment,” Mr Mohammed said. “As a government, we have said enough is enough and never again under our watch shall Zanzibar suffer disasters that can be avoided.”

According to the minister, efforts are underway to implement the recommendations in Judge Issa’s commission of inquiry report, with priority going to law enforcement, supply of equipment, personnel training and rapid disaster response.    

A task force is already drafting new marine regulations expected to come into force this year. The new rules could spell doom for most of the companies that operate vessels in Zanzibar. “We are, for example, proposing to ban vessels more than 15 years old,” Mr Aboud revealed.

This move may be a reaction to the fact that the ill-fated MV Spice Islander had been in operation for more than 44 years while MV Skagit and its twin MV Kalama were sold to a local company in 2011 after being retired in the US state of Seattle.  

The operations of Seagull, the firm running MV Skagit and MV Kalama, have been suspended pending a wider inspection of all its vessels.

Vessel registration and operating requirements will now be uniform across Zanzibar and Tanzania mainland to avoid shifting of responsibility between the Zanzibar Maritime Authority and the Surface and Marine Transport Authority (Sumatra).

Zanzibar has also approved a plan to buy a new passenger and cargo ferry boat to ply the Pemba route. The boat, according to the Zanzibar Shipping and Agency Corporation general manager, Captain Masudi Sururu, will carry 1,000 people, 130 vehicles and an additional 200 tonnes of cargo.

Minister Aboud said the ferry would be bought at Sh17.6 billion and would arrive in mid-2013. “The government will raise all the funds for this ship in collaboration with the People’s Bank of Zanzibar and the Zanzibar Social Security Fund.”

With a small economic base, the government was forced to squeeze ministerial budgets to raise the money for the new ferry. It faces a herculean task trying to raise another $70.6 million (nearly Sh113 billion) required to establish a modern rescue and disaster response system. A joint team from the relevant public agencies came up with the budget.

According to the commission of inquiry, casualties in the MV Spice Islander accident went up due to a slow response to distress calls and ultimately poor communication and rescue facilities.

Mr Aboud has since given an assurance that the isles government will work closely with the Union government and donor countries to ensure proper infrastructure is in place as soon as possible.

“We have negotiated with Israel that has agreed to help us carry out a thorough survey of our waters so that we can pick a suitable area to locate a modern and fully equipped communication and command centre for rapid rescue missions,” said the minister.

An official document seen by The Citizen on Saturday proposes that a central command centre be established to coordinate all sea rescue and surveillance. It includes a list of equipment that costs a total of Sh113 billion.The equipment proposed for the command centre include a helicopter, two fire fighting boats, 10 ambulances, eight rescue speed boats, 20 resuscitation equipment, underwater cameras, power saws and GPS facilities.

A central command centre, according to the Zanzibar Commissioner for Fire and Rescue Services, Mr Ali Maalimussy, is critical to avoid confusion and disjointed responses. While some boats donated by the US were available during last year’s tragedy, they could not be deployed for lack of fuel.

The port of Zanzibar has no emergency post or a passenger terminal despite being high on the hazard list. “Such a post would prevent some of the common mistakes and enforce safety rules,” explained Mr Maalimussy. His agency had warned of the poor state of MV Spice I slander1 long before it sank but no one paid attention.

It is negligence such as this that a new-look Zanzibar Marine Authority is promising to address, besides putting in structures to enforce the proposed regulations. The authority’s acting director-general, Mr Abdullah Kombo, said an acute shortage of staff and lack of autonomy had impeded work such as ship inspections, licensing and training.

“The government has released funds to employ three more inspectors for a total of five. We will also, from this financial year, run as an independent body with a complete work programme,” noted Mr Kombo, who doubles as the director for planning, policy and research at the ministry of Infrastructure and Communication. 

Mr Kombo said the agency will not allow any vessels that failed even the simplest of requirements to go out to sea. The Seagull, Sepide and MV Kalama have been grounded following numerous mishaps. “As a matter of fact, we want to completely deregister them,” the official said. “We are looking at legal technicalities before banning these companies.”

The passenger capacity on the MV Serengeti, which is the only state-owned vessel currently plying the Pemba route, has been reduced from 850 to 350 people. The ferry boat can load only 50 tonnes of cargo, down from 100 tonnes, due to advanced age.

According to Captain Sururu, the biggest headache is how to handle the many private operators with registered old vessels. In total, there are 13 passenger vessels and 16 cargo ships registered in Zanzibar.

There are also hundreds of smaller boats and dhows. The corporation would run the expected new ship and the MV Maendeleo, a 1980 ship with a capacity for 450 passengers and 700 tonnes of cargo.

The newly-appointed minister for Infrastructure and Communications, Mr Rashid Seif Suleiman, is warning that the new operating rules will be enforced to the letter and no private operators will get away with breaking them. “Those who don’t meet them will not be allowed here,” the minister told The Citizen on Saturday.

But private investors are in turn challenging the government to reduce bureaucracy, corruption and huge taxation—all of which add to their operating costs, eventually affecting efficiency. High taxation and licensing in the airline industry has been cited as one of the reasons why the cost of a local ticket has shot up more than 100 per cent in a few years.

“Our company is ready to abide by the highest operating standards and welcome the pledge by the government to rein in shoddy businessmen who take advantage of lax law enforcement to endanger the lives of passengers,” said Mr Hussein Mohamed Said, the general manager of Azam Marine and Coastal Fast Ferries.

Given the recent disasters, Mr Said added, it is imperative that the state and private investors collaborate with professional marine bodies around the world to research and instill strict safety measures, “Tanzania has many marine professionals but are we using them adequately and appropriately? The challenge is some profiteers just want to reap what they have not sowed.”

Azam Marine will in the next month deploy a new ferry with a capacity of 1,200 on the Pemba route. “We have invested $30 million in a new ferry and equipment and recently commissioned a Euros 300,000 modern ticketing system,” he said. All he asks is that the government put in place infrastructure befitting the new facilities.