Indonesia’s Hazardous Water Transport

On June 18, the ferry V Sinar Bangun, carrying 188 holiday-making passengers and crew, was just 22 minutes out of Simanindo Harbor on Lake Toba, Indonesia’s largest lake, when it was hit by heavy winds and rain. Sinar Bangun swayed three times and suddenly capsized to starboard, with screaming passengers fighting to get off the doomed vessel. Multiple people were crushed or trampled, witnesses said. Ultimately, more than 170 were believed to have drowned.

Later, investigators found that Sinar Bangun was carrying more than four times the vessel’s rated capacity of 43 passengers and was equipped with just 45 life jackets. It was the country’s deadliest marine disaster since 2009, when another ferry capsized with 300 drowned. Sinar Bangun was found to have habitually violated safety standards, outraging the public and damaging the government’s reputation for managing marine safety.

With Indonesia’s inter-island sea traffic zooming upward, driven by the country’s growing economy, the sinking of Sinar Bangun is emblematic of the deep public concerns over marine safety. In 2017 the number of sea transport passengers increased by 17.13 percent over 2016 to 17.46 million. Sea freight passengers in 2018 rose considerably faster, by 33.14 percent over the same period, reaching 3.2 million.

However, the government's efforts are limited to building physical infrastructure, without seeming concern for safety and security. Indonesia’s Shipping Court, or Mahkamah Pelayaran recorded 85 accidents in the four years to 2017, with human error constituting more than 50 percent of the total incidents. The accident rate has continued to climb, with eight marine accidents in the half year to July, claiming 77 lives, with hundreds still declared missing and presumed dead, including those off the Sinar Bangun.

The growth of passengers in small ports increased by 18.89 percent in 2017, nine times higher than 2016, making even clearer the need for more effective port authority functions in disciplinary enforcement and compliance with safety regulations.

On his visit to the Port of Ambon, the Minister of Transportation, Budi Karya Sumadi, gave 1,600 life jackets to operators of vessels operating in Maluku province to improve shipping safety, or at least to throw to drowning passengers. Of course, physical inventory is very important because many ships do not provide buoys for passengers at all.

The amount of supervision and regulation necessary to police Indonesia’s 17,500-plus islands and the millions of people traveling between them is staggering. With a shambolic fleet, ill-educated passengers and seas that can whirl up almost instantly into disaster, as with the Lake Toba incident, there are many peer management improvements waiting to be finalized.

Authorities must first assess ship seaworthiness, a major factor that must be met before a safety certificate is to be granted. Ship design calculation is extremely important.

Operational governance of port services must be audited. Syahbandar, as the port chief appointed by the ministry to carry out supervision and law enforcement in shipping safety and security, is faced with the task of evaluating such services in order to actually supervise according to the mandate. It is the vanguard of the fulfillment of the principles of safety and security of national shipping.

Authorities have been lax in dealing with the behavior of port authorities who allow unscrupulous owners of sea transport to overload their vessels, both with passengers, as in the case of V Sinar Bangun that violate the safety rules, and with freight.

Too often both officers and crew lack the skills that ensure safety. They are negligent in checking the condition of the ships, the lack of availability of safety equipment – not just life jackets but fire extinguishers, bilge pumps, safety rockets, smoke signals, life boats and many others. Port Facility Security Standards list dozens of such items that should be aboard. Out of either corruption or ignorance, harbor masters grant sailing permits regardless of bad weather warnings.

The supervision of safety is not limited to ship operations. Rather, with 20,687 registered fleet units in Indonesia, regular inspection and testing is a must, particularly to the 3.93 percent of ships designated as passenger transport.

Other stakeholders contributing to the improvement of shipping safety are educational institutions. The majority of crew operating in Indonesia do not have the necessary professional qualifications. Most of them in fact are self-taught. Therefore, the education of the ship crew needs to be done with the provision of training. It is hoped that this step will not only improve the quality of human resources but also develop the crew of the ship with integrity and uphold the principles of safety rules of the voyage.

“The main causes of maritime accidents in general are due to excess cargo, whether the carriage of goods or people,” according to an analysis by Danny Faturachmana and Shariman Mustafab in Science Direct. “Service users often do not even board cruise ships to find the determination of origin. In order to integrate facilities and transportation infrastructure that meet security and safety requirements, this becomes important for the functions of government as a guideline for transportation services. including regulatory aspects and aspects of supervision and control.”

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita write regularly on Indonesian social issues.