Boat accidents on Lake Victoria have become alarming for their frequency, the sheer number of lives lost and the fact that they are avoidable.
On November 24, the MV Templar capsized on Lake Victoria, barely two hundred metres from shore, killing more than thirty people. An unknown number are still missing.
Two months ago, the MV Nyerere capsized on the same lake only a hundred metres from port. Two hundred twenty eight people drowned.
The worst accident was that involving the MV Bukoba in 1996 near Mwanza in which nearly one thousand people died.
These are the ones that are reported because they involve relatively bigger boats and happen on the largest lake. There are many others that occur on smaller lakes and rivers, and on small boats, usually canoes, that do not get any attention.
The recurring disasters reflect a number of things about East Africans’ attitude to water.
First, water as a form of transport has been neglected and largely remains undeveloped in terms of ports infrastructure, type and quality of vessels, laws and regulations, safety measures, and even the concept of marine transport itself.
Much effort and money have been poured into roads infrastructure development and lately on railways. No such outlay has been made on water transport.
The lakes have been left to fishermen, and even these use old-fashioned dug-out canoes. In a few cases, the only modern addition is the outboard motor engine.
Yet, given the abundance of water bodies in East Africa, many of which are navigable and cut across borders, marine transport should be one of the most efficient and cheapest links between the countries of the region and an easy tool to further integration.
Lake Victoria is shared by three countries; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Two others: Burundi and Rwanda are connected to it via River Akagera. South Sudan is linked by the River Nile.
We should therefore be seeing more boats on the lake travelling to ports in the different countries, carrying passengers, ferrying goods, and even for sport.
But nothing much moves on the lake. What there is are old, rickety boats left by the colonial governments and a few others acquired since but that have also suffered neglect. Nearly all of them are not seaworthy, often carry beyond their capacity, and are obviously death traps.
All the other large lakes are also shared by other countries outside the region and should equally be marine thoroughfares for people and commerce and make African integration a lot easier.
Lake Kivu is shared by Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Burundi is not very far away. Lake Tanganyika connects Burundi, DRC, Tanzania and Zambia. Uganda and DRC share Lakes Albert and Edward. Further south, Lake Malawi joins Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique.
But most activity on the lakes is fishing and smuggling. In some cases, quarrels about who owns what part of the lake impede even the little activity that goes on.
Secondly, whatever transport that might have developed on the lakes was killed by other forms of transport, mainly road. It is the same fate that Eat African railway networks suffered.
Everyone knows railways offer the most competitive cost for transporting bulk goods. Indeed all the leaders have always sung their praises, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni loudest, at least when he had just come to power all those years ago. Over the years the songs became less frequent, inaudible and eventually died down.
The railways were killed by a combination of road transporters, among them influential people in government and business, and corrupt officials. It is only now that they are being revived, but even then there is dragging of feet in some quarters.
Thirdly, East Africans are not used to water for leisure either. They do not have much water sport. Most of what happens is white water rafting on the Nile introduced by foreigners a few decades ago and the Buganda Royal Regatta boat race on Lake Victoria. Few can swim.
The cruise rides similar to the ill-fated Templar one are a recent thing and have not taken hold yet.
Most East Africans are essentially terrestrial creatures. They have not yet developed a culture that would make them equally comfortable on water.
If there is any lesson from the boat tragedies on Lake Victoria, it is that there is a need to exploit marine resources more than has been the case up to now. If we are seriously thinking about greater integration, growing intra-African trade and more movement of persons across borders, development of marine transport should be a priority.
Then more resources will be made available for its infrastructure and acquisition of the right vessels. It will be imperative to update laws and enforce safety. With a little effort, deaths on lakes are avoidable.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.