TWICE in a single day, on Thursday, we were again reminded how embarrassing the state of the Philippines’ maritime industry is with the tragic sinking of a local ferry near the port of Ormoc, and the loss of a cargo barge off Antique.
The capsizing of the ferry—which is properly referred to as a “motor banca”—resulted in the deaths of 61 people, as of the latest update. Although the cause of the tragedy is not yet known, poor handling by the crew of the MV Kim Nirvana, rough weather, and unsafe modification of the vessel are being looked into as possible culprits. In the barge accident that happened later the same day, bad weather is being blamed for detaching the barge from its moorings during unloading of its cargo of cement, gravel and other materials for the construction of a church in Antique province.
Fortunately, no one was reported injured or killed in the second accident, although 30 crewmembers had to be rescued by local authorities.
It is not an exaggeration to describe maritime accidents like these as ‘regular occurrences,’ because sadly they are exactly that. At least once per year, and in most years more than once, a significant accident resulting in the loss of a number of lives happens somewhere in the Philippines.
For a country of more than 7,000 islands, which has a proud seafaring tradition dating back centuries, and which provides fully one-fourth of the manpower for the global maritime industry, the record of frequent fatal accidents due to bad management or poorly equipped and maintained vessels is not only ironic, it is downright shameful.
The solutions to improve this dubious history are not at all difficult to understand or implement. Regulations pertaining to the training and certification of ships’ crew members, and regulations to ensure ships and boats are properly registered and meet appropriate safety standards already exist, if only the government through maritime regulator, the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), and the Philippine Coast Guard would apply the wherewithal to correctly and consistently enforce them.
Of course, as industry insiders and analysts are quick to point out, the relatively small number of major Philippine shippers constitutes a powerful lobby, able to exert influence to avoid regulatory scrutiny because of their control of the industry. That may very well be the case, but it does not in any way excuse the government—or for that matter, the industry itself—from striving for high standards.
One initiative that would create an incentive for domestic shipping concerns to improve their performance would be the relaxation of the Philippines’ grossly outdated cabotage laws, which are designed to eliminate, rather than encourage competition.
“Cabotage” refers to the practice of allowing foreign vessels to transport goods and passengers between Philippine ports. Under the current law, which has been discussed in the Legislature but is presently still in force, only Philippine-registered shippers can move goods between Philippine ports. Maintaining the policy is arcane, potentially dangerous, and economically unwise.
Fair and healthy competition helps to encourage innovation and better overall performance, and the best available evidence—the experience of the air transport sector, which has been incrementally liberalized over the past 20 years—suggests that a relaxation of maritime cabotage restrictions would have a positive impact.
As the government conducts its ‘probe’ into the latest accidents, we strongly suggest the cabotage law be reconsidered as part of, or a follow-up to, the investigation.