Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Photo of the week, September 14th

The tributaries to the main body of Lake Volta are often inhabited by fishing and farming communities, isolated and taking most of their wares to market by boat, and returning with items for their daily lives and to build their communities. As was seen last week along the River Sene, near Kete Krachi, being isolated carries more dangers than one may at first conceive. Consequently education of the people, provision of suitable solutions and encouragements to building their socio-economic sustainability must be accelerated if we are to reduce the needless loss of life on our National Resource. Photo Courtesy of Medicine on the Move

Lessons from the Sene Boat Accident

Observations from Capt. Yaw.

(a Fresh Water Matter from the Fresh Air Matters page)

Last weeks accident on the River Sene, where many lives were lost when a boat capsized about 800m from shore, on a tributary to the Lake Volta ,was tragic. The loss of life, no matter what the cause, is always something that should be analyzed and lessons learned from it, in order that the death of our citizens and loved ones is not in vain. Knowing the Lake Volta as I do (flying low level along large stretches of the coastline of it on a regular basis), and especially the remoteness and inaccessibility of so many towns and villages around the lake, as well as operations on and above the lake, this incident grabs my attention with the tenacity of a vice.

To many people the Lake is just a ‘piece of water’ that our electricity comes from. To those who know it, the lake is a massive minefield of potential impacts to any vessel that floats upon it; it is a rising and falling mass that takes homes and fields away with the frequency of the dragons of folklore; it is a thief of life and equipment for those who work and travel up on it; it is also a resource that is underutilized and capable of generating far more good to this nation than it is given credit. The stump issues are not going to change in a hurry, even with all the underwater logging operations. This lake is vast – and with a coastline of nearly eight thousand kilometers, it offers more challenges – and opportunities - than can be imagined.

The ‘Infrastructurally Isolated Communities’, or iic’s as we refer to them as, are easily more than two thousand, probably more than three thousand, around the lake. A community may be as few as five houses or a settlement of many hundreds. Access to their place of abode is often limited by a dangerous water transport ride or a lengthy trek through the bush, with its own hazards. Telephone coverage is far from complete and it is possible to go missing on or around the lake for days in areas where there are few landmarks to assist with visual navigation, especially in the West and North West of the water bodies.

The community where the accident struck was not very far from Kete Krachi, a major port, and the site of the disaster itself was in shallow waters less than one kilometer from the shore of a community with many canoes on hand. The downstream riverbank, to the North of the accident site is well populated, and also equipped with a host of fisher-folk and their equipment. The southern bank of the river at that point is convoluted and sparsely inhabited, being the top end of the Digya National Park.

The cause of the accident is cited in many press releases as ‘overloading’ – yet that appears to only be a part of the story. Assuming the boat hit a tree stump, or ran aground on a mud flat, the two most probable causes (or indeed a combination of the two), and it has been intimated that the accident occurred in the night, then we must only assume that the overloading was not the very cause of the accident, but a factor in the magnitude of the accident, contributing to the rapidity of the sinking of the vessel as well as to the number of lives lost.

If reports are true, over 60% of the occupants of this vessel were saved by the local community. They must be given full credit for their part in this rescue mission – they were on site, used their own common sense and limited resources and reacted to the need at hand as they could, and they did well – considering the limitations upon them.

There have been rampant calls for the Navy to be equipped with high speed vessels in order to respond to such incidents, but I am not convinced that such a knee jerk reaction is entirely appropriate.

The Navy may not possess a vessel in the area, but has its personnel posted there. They have demonstrated that they can use the local vessels at a moment’s notice. Local vessels around the Krachi area are often in excellent shape – and, there is a Ministry of Health Vessel stationed at Kete Krachi (which does not appear in any report that I have read, but can be seen on the quayside at Krachi). Consequently, access to vessels for the Navy has not been a major issue. When we then hear of a cry for ‘high speed vessels’, more questions must be asked – one of the major causes of accidents on the Volta is the speed at which the vessels impact the hidden objects. With a level that varies from 236 to 277 feet – that is a range of over forty feet– the hidden and exposed dangers are incredibly variable. As you go along the banks and especially along the tributaries, such as the Sene, the hazards are amazingly complex – in a given stretch of one kilometer of water it is possible to have a thousand hazards – which may vary on a day-to-day basis. It is possible to fit a device called an FLS or Forward Looking Sonar, which, at best in these waters can give you 100m of ‘warning of impact’, perhaps. That is not a lot, especially if travelling at a higher speed. Impacting an object at high speed can spell disaster even for a large and well-built vessel.

Fiberglass hulls splinter in less than a second from even a minor impact, and I have personal experience on the lake of fiberglass reinforced with Kevlar (the same material as bullet proof vests) and how that material damages on floatation devices even at relatively low speed. Wooden boats also tend to have their challenges. The preferred material is metal – either marine grade aluminum (not the sort produced in Ghana) or steel. Both have their challenges but steel hulls do stand-up better and are easier to fix in our environment.

However, even if the Navy were equipped with a high speed boat from Krachi, they could not have reached the scene quicker than the local people. It is, therefore, evident that the local people need to be better equipped. Equipped through training, provision of emergency equipment and equipped to communicate.

Even communicating where an accident has occurred is a challenge on the lake, let alone being able to physically make a telephone call or radio transmission. Radio would not reach Krachi from the location of this recent accident – or indeed the vast majority of the lake, and even if the telephone network did work at such a place, we have to ask a) how do they charge their phones and b) where do they get credit! These are very remote locations – not in terms of distance, but in terms of infrastructure. They are iics.

Clearly, regulations and the enforcement thereof must be given a higher priority, but when we consider any of the many iics, we must consider empowerment. Empower them to be able to handle the challenges (show them how to improve on their response given in the current incident) – provide life belts and ‘rescue points’ around the lake, for that would be a far better investment, and probably at a lower cost, than any high speed vessel for the Navy. Furthermore, each designated ‘rescue’ point should be geo-referenced so that aircraft and vessels would be able to quickly find the site, for there is much confusion about ‘where-is-where’ along these meandering banks – and many towns with variable as well as similar names. Accurate GPS co-ordinates are needed, and tracking of the same within the reach of low budget, high reliability equipment, probably having more effect in the timely execution of a response than just about anything else.

Ideally, moor-able markers should be present showing ‘clear passage even at low water’ – but even identifying the same, let alone marking it appropriately, is not an easy task – and such markers would need geo-referenced and identification. (such a project is already being put together by a private operation for their water based services to the rural communities).

Yes, the Navy should be equipped with appropriate equipment and vessels – vessels for travelling the shores of the lake, water ambulances, capable carrying training teams, distributing and maintaining equipment – checking on the readiness of the people to handle their daily challenge on the largest man-made lake in the world, a ‘monster of our own making’, and one that we need to tame in our own service, not only in terms of electricity, but also in terms of its impact on the lives of those living around its shores.

Unless we educate and empower the people, these accidents will only get worse. Thinking that equipping a few locations with ‘maritime panaceas’ is not the solution, but a long term, inclusive empowerment plan is – and it needs to be water, land and air based – founded securely in a public-private pact for the protection and development of the people.

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