Kenya: Ferry Tragedies Expose Weak Links in Safety of the Vessels

12 January 2021

Mr Philip Kioko has been using the Likoni Channel for the past 30 years, majority of the trips in his vehicle.

But of late, fear grips him behind the wheel whenever he starts descending the steep ramp that allows motorists to board and disembark from ferries.

"If one misses, just one step (down the ramp), you will find yourself in the sea," says Mr Kioko, a secondary school teacher.

And when it rains, the gradient becomes slippery-- making it more likely for motorists to plunge into the ocean. In the past week alone, two vehicles-- a bus belonging to Pollmans Tours and Safaris and a lorry belonging to Taifa Millers-- plunged into the ocean.

Occurrences 'normal'

Last year, many mishaps rocked the channel but only few were reported since, according ferry workers the Nation talked to, the occurrences have become "normal". But the majority of the cases were reported in 2019, including the one in May where a truck was partly submerged after it failed to go up the steep ramp.

In July, 2019 another lorry from Taifa Millers plunged into the ocean and the driver escaped death narrowly.

But perhaps the incident that captured the attention of the nation was October 2019 death of Ms Mariam Kighenda and her daughter Amanda Mutheu after their car slid off the ferry.

The other fatal case came two months later when Mr John Mutinda took his car down the ramp in what police said was suicide. Investigations by the Nation revealed that hardly a week passes without a vehicle facing difficulties going up or down the steep ramp. Besides the steep gradient, the surface occasionally gets covered by slippery mould from ocean water, which often makes Kenya Ferry Services (KFS) personnel spread limestone powder. KFS managing director Bakari Gowa says there is no permanent solution for the mould as the ramp is usually affected by water tides.

According to Mr David Jomeli, a registered civil engineer, the steep ramp should be redesigned.

Mr Jomeli, the technical director at Kenya Federation of Master Builders (KFMB) and a frequent user of the channel, adds that a barrier at the end of the ramp would also help.

Many risks

"That ramp is gradient and in construction standards it should not be the way it is. A redesign must be done to avoid the frequent cases. In Africa, we take too many risks which can be avoided," he said. To boost safety, he called for the erection of reflective road marks at the channel.

"The slope is in such a way that even if you us a handbrake it would fail," he added.

In Sunday's incident, the driver of the bus, Mr Salim Omar, said he tried to use the brakes when the vehicle slid, but they failed because of the slippery surface.

Mr Omar and his conductor John Omutere were rescued by local fishermen before the KFS boat responded.

The rescue by the locals has sparked debate on the need for divers to be stationed at the channel, a recommendation that was made after the September 29 incident where Ms Kighenda and her daughter died.

In a report by the National Assembly Public Investment Committee after the 2019 tragedy, the team directed Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) to recruit divers and provide requisite training on search and rescue in the event of accidents.

This, however is yet to be done, with KFS saying that it relies on the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and Kenya Navy divers. Mr Gowa said other measures which were recommended have been considered and implemented.

This include the provision of chains on ferries to block vehicles from sliding into the sea.

There are seven ferries operating at the channel--Mv Kwale, Mv Nyayo, Mv Likoni, Mv Harambee, Mv Kilindini, Mv Jambo and Mv Safari. Mv Harambee was withdrawn and is undergoing maintenance.

Mv Kwale operates at the Mtongwe channel, but has also been withdrawn to allow its prows be repaired. This has left only Mv Likoni at the Mtongwe Channel.

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