It does not need much imagination to predict what happens when our much stronger winds, thanks to climate change, and our very much older ships, a product of regulatory weakness, come together.
Being a sea-faring nation where many of its 100 million citizens depend on crossing seas to get to a nearby island destination, motorized bancas, boats and ships have become one of the essential modes of transportation – not just to ferry people, but also cargo.
Over the years, roll-on roll-off (RoRo) vessels have served as the backbone of inter-island trade and commerce in the country, offering a convenient mode of transportation to ferry agricultural produce and other products between ports.
As much as government agencies earnestly try to ensure the safety of both passengers and cargo by improving their monitoring systems against overloading and departures during imminent strong winds and storms, the most basic problem remains: the existence of old ships.
The Philippines has one of the most notorious history of maritime disasters. In 1980, 176 people died when MV Don Juan sank in the infamous Tablas Strait off Mindoro.
Seven years later, 4,341 people were presumed to have tragically died in the MV Doña Paz sinking while crossing the sea from Leyte to Manila. MV Doña Paz, which collided with an oil tanker, had earned the Philippines a spot in the world’s listing of worst sea transportation accidents.
Today, more than three decades after, our country continues to suffer from maritime mishaps, with still notoriously huge losses in lives. Remember MV Princes of the Stars in 2008, which left 437 dead? Or MV St. Thomas Aquinas in 2013 with 114 dead?
Let change happen
If the current government is bent on seeing real and meaningful changes that will protect the lives of our countrymen, the modernization of the existing fleet of sea-faring inter-island vessels must be undertaken.
Our RoRo vessels have an average age of more than 30 years. Coupled with poor maintenance, antiquated equipment, and ill-trained ship personnel, they are accidents waiting to happen. No wonder, we continue to have incidents of RoRo and ferry sinking every year without fail.
New data from the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) have shown that from 2006 to 2014, all of the four vessels that had sunk because of extreme weather were aged more than 20 years old.
Then, in the case of 30-year-old MV Maharlika II, which just recently sank, water came in from the steering gear. Like the rest of the 22 other RoRo vessels that had suffered from mechanical problems during the period, it had been in operation for at least 20 years.
Intuitively, we know too well that the age of a vessel, like a motor vehicle, has a direct correlation on its cost of maintenance, no matter how well kept it has been through the years. Wear and tear of parts is something that accompanies use over time.
At a certain point, it makes economic sense to get a new vessel (or vehicle) to avoid more costly repairs, and to maintain its safety integrity, the latter being non-negotiable.
There is always a higher risk involving older vessels, and this is the reason why maritime regulatory agencies in most countries have set age restrictions for their operation. This is also the reason why the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) sets a maximum age limit of 15 years for passenger buses.
It is timely to note that most RoRos operating today in the Philippines were imported second-hand from Japan, which incidentally has set a 20-years age restriction on operations of their vessels. Being a market for these retired vessels, it is no wonder that most of our sea-going vessels are over two decades old.
Aside from age, Japanese RoRos are unsuitable for use in Philippine open seas because they were designed and built largely for calm inland waters. Furthermore, these second-hand vessels are modified with the addition of a second deck, thus making them more unsafe for use in open seas.
Clearly, the many risks involving the operations of second hand vessels must be mitigated by firm guidelines by Marina if the rate of accidents and incidents involving sea-faring vessels are to be drastically reduced. If this had been imposed on the domestic petroleum tanker industry years ago, more so should it be on passenger-bearing sea vessels.
There have been protests from many owners of the 250-plus RoRos that are currently servicing inter-island routes, largely fearing the upfront cost of replacing their old vessels. Currently, over 83 percent of ships are beyond 20 years of age, and 28 percent are over 40 years old.
In reality, most of these over-age vessels have recovered for their owners the initial cost of acquisition, and they would already be incurring huge costs for proper maintenance. Thus, the process of replacing old vessels with new or newer ones will not be as financially painful, as demonstrated by two RoRo shipping companies.
These two firms have gone through their maths, and are now in the process of modernizing their fleets. One has ordered five brand new RoRos for short trips from China, while the other signed for the delivery of specially-designed longer-haul inter-island vessels from Japan.
Urgent Marina action
With these examples, Marina should have the will to implement an immediate ban on the importation of second-hand RoRos with 5,000 gross tonnage and below unless these are 15 years old or below, and are fully classed by an IACS (International Association of Classification Society) member.
More importantly, for the longer term, say by 2019, RoRos of 5,000 gross tonnage and below should be totally banned from operating if these are more than 35 years old, not fully classed, and do not have property and indemnity insurance acceptable to Marina.
In addition, all major alterations to existing RoRo vessels should not be allowed unless these are approved by and supervised by an IACS member, and are class maintained thereon. Of course, it goes without saying that Marina should be resolute in ensuring that all ship owners strictly adhere to these three conditions.
Just like with the petroleum tanker business, only then will the country be assured of safer RoRo sea travel for Filipinos.
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