Over the past half a century, East Africa’s inland waters have been plagued by two constants – death and promises.
Last week, the MV Templar, a so-called leisure boat went down 100 metres short of Mutima Island just across the channel from Kampala, taking 33 lives with it. In true marine tradition its owner, Templar Bisasem and his wife were among the fatalities.
The sequence of the disaster displayed an all-too-familiar pattern. A vessel that was not seaworthy was somehow allowed to offer a cruise.
Agents of the state that should have prevented it from setting sail, allowed themselves to get overwhelmed by the drunken protests of the merrymakers.
When disaster struck, there was no semblance of a co-ordinated rescue effort and to date, nobody knows exactly how many people were aboard the ill-fated boat.
The tragic sinking of the Templar came just two months after the MV Nyerere sank killing more than 200 people, just 50 metres short of Ukara Island.
In both instances, the accidents and their toll happened at points less than 15 minutes’ sailing distance from docking points, making a mockery of high-sounding safety initiatives that only appear to come to light after a major disaster.
In his condolence message in the wake of the latest tragedy, Dr Ally Said Matano, executive secretary of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, pledged to “continue pushing for any intervention that shall contribute to making our lake safe and secure for navigation.”
Over the course of the past 20 years, different estimates have assigned 5,000 as the annual fatality rate on Lake Victoria alone.
Many of these deaths are attributable to small fishing boats and commercial transport boats that help ordinary people eke out a living or connect to the numerous islands that have largely been left out of the loop of public services.
Indeed, death on our waters has become so normalised that it only gains significance when the numbers, or social status of the victims are too compelling to ignore.
By and large, the high maritime toll and the public reaction to it betray the progressive decay of institutional memory in East Africa.
Fifty years since the region took charge of its affairs, there has been hardly any investment in navigation aids and life guard and rescue services.
In wake of the November 24 disaster, it was learnt that Uganda has only eight marine inspectors and that laws governing activity on water bodies have not been amended for the better part of 70 years. Worse still, is that there is no will to enforce these laws, however inadequate they may be.
Nearly a decade later, there is little evidence of a multimillion-dollar plan by Lake Victoria Basin Commission to set up emergency communication and co-ordination centres at strategic points around the lake.
The project has slid so far down the hierarchy of needs that it no longer features on even the LVBC’s own website.
To arrest the slide, there is a need first to wake up to the fact that most of the deaths on our water bodies are not inevitable.
It is also necessary to ask the hard questions about what needs to be done to give victims of adverse events on the lake a chance at life.