Why do so many people die in ferry accidents?

April 23, 2014 

Nearly 300 people are feared missing after a huge ferry capsized and sank off South Korea’s southwestern coast. Carrying a group of high school students on a field trip from a high school outside Seoul, the ship was en route to Jeju, a Korean resort island known as the country’s “Hawaii.”

Between 800 and 1,000 people are thought to die in ferry accidents every year, according to Roberta Weisbrod, the executive director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association. While ferries in the developed world are by and large very safe, ferry safety is a serious problem in the developing world, Weisbrod said.

While ferry accidents such as the recent catastrophe are uncommon in Korea — its last such disaster came two decades ago — they happen more often elsewhere in Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. The Philippines and Indonesia are composed of extensive archipelagos; Bangladesh is a riverine country. As a result, water transport is a fact of daily life.

What has been described as the world’s worst peacetime maritime tragedy occurred in the Philippines in 1987 when the Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker and as many as 4,000 people lost their lives.

Ferries in developing countries are often old vessels, sometimes repurposed to operate in waterways for which they weren’t designed. In Tanzania, for example, ferries from the calm waters of Washington state’s Puget Sound were put to sea in the rough waters of the Indian Ocean, Weisbrod said.

Ferries in the developing world are often overcrowded, which can throw off a boat’s balance or make it top-heavy and more prone to capsizing. And when crewmembers are inadequately trained, they are uncertain of how to respond in the event of a disaster. Moreover, government safety regulations are far less stringent — or go unenforced — in developing nations.

Of course, many of the factors that make ferry accidents routine in parts of the developing world were not at play in the case of the Sewol. The ship wasn’t overcrowded, and there is, at least at this stage, little reason to doubt the seaworthiness of the vessel.

That only serves to magnify the horror of the disaster.

Foreign Policy

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