• Maritime safety: Why so elusive?



    I came across an article that lengthily discussed the dismal state of road and rail safety in this country. What caught my attention was how the writer diverted his discourse to maritime safety. He recalled the “ne’er to forget” sea mishaps which claimed hundreds of lives. He went on to criticize shipowners and operators for their callousness, ignoring the need to protect their passengers and crew. Understandably, he was trying to underscore the insensitivity to transport safety by operators of all modes of public transport in this archipelago and chose shipowners as example.

    The subject of safety of public transportation has been consistently hugging the local news in an almost precise timetable, depending on which suffers a breakdown or figures in an accident. It becomes matter-of-fact to hear reports of loss of lives and limbs and damage to property resulting from road, rail and sea transport accidents.

    People are no longer surprised to hear news of transport-related mishaps happening on a day-to-day basis.
    Every time there is an accident on the road or at sea, or whenever a light rail coach suffers a glitch, it is the man behind the wheel who gets blamed and consequently the transport operator who hired him. Next to be scrutinized is the agency tasked to oversee the operations of public transportation, i.e. the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and any of its attached agencies. Congressional hearings are called, heads roll as concerned agency heads are replaced, and within the agency, rotation of personnel may follow. And then oblivion sets in until the next mishap.

    Road safety receives the most attention in recent weeks not only because of the string of accidents, which resulted in fatalities by the busloads but also because of the traffic that results. Likewise, we hear the litanies recited on airwaves about the unbearable long queues and the inconveniences LRT and MRT passengers must bear. And then we get to hear of a ship being towed to safety because of engine malfunction.

    The collision of the Dona Paz and MT Vector in December 1987 is listed in the world’s merchant shipping record as the worst peacetime maritime mishap. It is often cited as the Titanic of Asia. This was followed by a number of sea accidents, and yet thirty years after, the question persists: how far has safety of sea travel in the Philippines improved?

    There is no forthright answer   to the question. The adoption and updating of maritime policies and technical requirements have by no means increased the level of confidence that maritime accidents are unlikely to happen. It may therefore help us gauge how far the country has progressed by understanding the elements that contribute to achieving maritime safety.

    The ship—The seaworthiness of a ship is determined by technical, legal and institutional measures and requisites. Technical rules are instituted for building and operating ships and compliance therewith are attested through a series of certifications issued by government or through its authorized organizations. A ship’s structural fitness, the appliances and equipment onboard, and the competence of the crew who operate them comprise the basic components in establishing the seaworthiness of a ship.

    Legislation and regulations—It is important to formulate and adopt the legal framework through which technical, social and administrative requirements in the provision of sea transport are implemented and enforced.
    International treaties and conventions dealing with maritime safety, security and protection of the environment have been ratified and adopted by the country, become part of the compendium of maritime laws which are to be implemented on all Philippine-flagged ships as well as foreign ships calling on Philippine ports or traversing its territorial waters.

    In most jurisdictions, a law is enacted which allocates authority to the various agencies and mandates them to exercise certain maritime functions. Based on the powers and mandates given them, maritime agencies are to formulate rules and regulations which provide detailed instructions, directives and interpretation of maritime laws and international agreements and conventions.

    Infrastructure and shore-based arrangements—Ports and harbours and shore-based support structures are made available by a port/coastal State in consonance with the sovereign duty of extending facilities and services to ships that call on its ports.  Ship-port interface is a necessary phase of shipping with the port serving as platform for the embarkation/disembarkation of passengers and loading/unloading of cargoes. For most ships, It is the place where ship supplies and services are procured. Moving cargoes inland to and from the ship is as important as the sea travel, and it is the ports and shore infrastructures that make this possible.

    Institutional capacity—All States have the avowed obligation of ensuring maritime safety be it on account of their being flag-/port-/coastal State, or the combination of all such roles. The affirmation is carried out through government instrumentalities. These develop and administer policies and regulations, regulate and monitor maritime enterprises and sees to it that public interest is served. A system of tracking and monitoring compliance with technical requirements is likewise put in place.

    Ensuring maritime safety is one of the core functions of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina). The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also discharges safety functions and in some ways, so do the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and the country’s other port authorities. Other governmental instrumentalities which undertake related safety functions include the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA),  among others. Of utmost importance for each of the aforementioned agencies are the capacities to exercise their respective maritime functions contingent upon, but not limited to availability of/access to resources such as manpower complement, funding support and other werewithals.

    Industry stakeholders—Shipowners are granted, upon their own commitment to serve public interest, the privilege of operating ships and any such floating contrivances used for water transportation. The shipowner’s pledge includes a warranty of safe passage from the port of embarkation to the port of destination. This the shipowner carries out based on the comprehensive set of legal, technical, social, administrative, infrastructure requirements as above enumerated. Further, the institution of the safety management system puts shipowners and operators in a better position to track safety compliance.

    Maritime safety is a confluence of the above-mentioned elements and failure in any of these could be devastating. All must work together with the clear vision of achieving maritime safety. Unless one is able to pinpoint which element failed, there is no way that corrective action can be accurately identified and instituted. Instead of propagating a culture of blame in resolving maritime accidents with parties trying to discredit each other for being negligent in their avowed roles and mandate, why not scrutinize how things could be better improved?


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