Philippines ferry capsizes: Why are accidents so common?

At least 36 were reported killed after a passenger ferry carrying 189 people capsized in central Philippines Thursday. What causes ferry accidents, and how can they be prevented?

A ferry carrying 173 passengers and 16 crew members capsized off the coast of Ormoc City in central Philippines Thursday, killing at least 36 people, multiple news outlets report.

The vessel Kim Nirvana, en route to the Camotes islands about an hour’s sail away, sank about half a mile away from port, reports say. The number of survivors and missing remain unclear: CNN has listed 134 survivors and 17 missing, while Reuters reported 127 and 26, respectively. Search-and-rescue operations are underway, officials said.

The incident once again draws attention to ferry boat safety, recently a matter of global discussion after the South Korean vessel Sewol sank and killed more than 300 in April 2014.

On average, ferry accidents kill about 1,000 to 1,500 people worldwide every year, says Dr. Roberta Weisbrod, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Worldwide Ferry Safety Association (WSFA). While global awareness of the issue is rising and efforts are being made to counteract ferry deaths, she says, considerable challenges remain when it comes to preventing ferry accidents and casualties – most of which, Dr. Weisbrod adds, are avoidable.

Between 2000 and 2014, 160 ferry accidents occurred in 39 countries, according to WSFA data. Developing nations, which rely on ferries as a regular mode of transportation, tend to log the most incidents: In the same time period, Bangladesh, which depends on rivers for trade and travel, saw 40 cases, while Indonesia, a vast archipelago, had 27 cases.

The same is true for the Philippines, also an archipelago; the worst peacetime maritime tragedy occurred there in 1987, when the passenger ferry Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker and killed 4,000 people.

The Kim Nirvana marks the 20th ferry accident in the country in 15 years.

Authorities are still investigating what caused the boat to capsize, as the weather – which contributes to about 50 percent of ferry accidents, says Weisbrod – was calm when the ferry left port.

“There wasn’t any storm or any gale. We’re trying to find out [why it happened],” Philippine coastguard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo told Agence France-Presse.

He also denied that the boat was overcrowded – another common contributor to accidents – though he noted that the boat’s outriggers appear to have broken when it capsized, and it was possible that the crew made a navigational error.

Other typical causes of ferry accidents include old or ill-equipped vessels and crews that lack weather education, people management skills, and training in emergency situations, Weisbrod says.

“The crew really has to be trained,” she says. They have to know “how to respond to accidents, and how to tell passengers what to do.”

Most countries have good laws and policies surrounding ferry safety, and in the wake of highly-publicized accidents, governments tend to take immediate legislative action, Weisbrod says. The problem, she notes, is in enforcement: Do vessels have enough life vests and lifeboats? Are the ferries properly maintained? How well-trained is the crew?

There have been some efforts to improve ferry safety around the world, Weisbrod says. Since 1976, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has held an annual conference in various venues worldwide in an effort to share new advances in ferry safety. Recently, she adds, more researchers have conducted studies around standards and best practices for the ferry industry in developing nations.

To address the issue of poorly-equipped and aging vessels, the WFSA has for the last two years held a ferry design competition that seeks to create safe and affordable vessels for developing countries.

Weisbrod acknowledges that measuring the effects these efforts have had on ferry safety has been challenging. But, she says, “in terms of awareness and people talking about it, there’s a lot more.”

“I’m hopeful it’s going to improve,” she adds.

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