Philippines Ferry Disaster

The sinking of M/V Princess of the Stars at the height of Typhoon Fengshen highlights once again the decrepit state of the Philippines ferry system and underscores the country’s lax and fatally defective maritime laws and regulations. It is the third disaster since 1988 for ferries owned by Sulpicio Lines, taking the lives of nearly 5,000 people.

So far, although only 70 people have been confirmed dead, more than 700 remain missing. There were 866 people aboard the Princess of the Stars and, four days later, only 57 survivors have been found washed ashore near Sibuyan Island in Romblon. Authorities said they do not expect to find any more alive.

The tragedy is a recurring theme to a country where the inter-island ferry system is one of the major modes of transportation and it stems from a welter of confusing guidelines, undermanned maritime authorities and ageing boats. It is an indictment of on the entire industry-- the players, government regulators and lawmakers-- which take for granted the safety of largely poor passengers.

Immediately after being informed of the incident, President Gloria Arroyo, who is on an official 10-day trip to the United States, publicly castigated the Philippine Coast Guard for allowing the 23,000-ton vessel to leave Manila’s port for Cebu while the typhoon raged. The ferry capsized Saturday, at the height of Fengshen’s fury. A surviving crew member said the ship turned over in only 15 minutes after its engines failed.

Lawmakers from both houses of Congress are demanding yet another investigation on the sea-mishap, which is actually just a replay of probes of past maritime disasters. Such probes feed on public outcry, but no concrete legislative remedy is ever acted upon after the outrage has died down. Past congressional investigations—from the Sulpicio-owned Dona Paz tragedy in 1988, which is considered to be the worst peacetime maritime disaster in the world, killing 4,000 people, and the Princess of the Orient disaster in 1998, where 150 died---have identified the questionable seaworthiness of most inter-island vessels, the confusing maritime regulations and the moribund state of the Coast Guard as contributing factors. Beyond that, the probes have gone nowhere. Sulpicio Lines, owned by the Go family from Cebu, have never been charged criminally for the three disasters involving their shipping line.

In the meantime, everybody is blaming everybody else. Edgar Go, the vice president of the ferry line, said the Coast Guard had cleared the ship to sail. Arthur Lim, a Sulpicio lawyer, cited 1998 rules saying the Coast Guard had the responsibility to plan storm routes. But the head of a newly convened inquiry board, Rear Admiral Ramon Liwag, said new guidelines were issued in 2007 passing the responsibility to the ship captain whether to leave port. Sulpicio said they hadn’t received the guidelines. The coast guard also temporarily removed the district commander of Manila, Commander Erwin Balagas, who had authority over the ferry when it sailed from the capital.

Former senator John Osmena, who chaired the public services committee in the Senate, noted that that all passenger ships that figured in the past disasters were considered no longer seaworthy because “these are already old.”

“You have Dona Paz which was more than 25 years old, also with Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars,” Osmena pointed out. “I think the rule of thumb is that the age of the ship should be 15 years at most.”

Compounding the situation is the questionable competence of the crew in most ships, which a previous Senate hearing showed were mostly products of diploma mills. The Senate hearing was in connection with the Dona Paz tragedy in 1987, and yet there was really no effort to upgrade the maritime educational system.

Under a presidential decree issued by the former President Aquino, the determination of seaworthiness of a ship and competence of its crew is delegated to the Maritime Industry Authority. Before the decree, the task was performed by Philippine Coast Guard.

But because the maritime authority doesn’t have the manpower and capability to determine a ship’s seaworthiness on a regular basis, the task of ensuring it is in top condition is reverted back to the Coast Guard. Already hampered by logistical constraints, the Coast Guard’s capability to ensure vessels’ compliance on maritime regulations further suffered a setback when the Coast Guard was transferred from the Philippine Navy to the Department of Transportation and Communication.

Former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., who also chaired the committee on public services, said the transfer was a mistake since it deprived the latter of equipment and logistics in ensuring safety and enforcing regulations on the sea. “For instance, the patrol crafts are with the DND.”

The budget allocated to the Coast Guard shows its funding from the national government has barely increased in the past six years, ironic for an agency tasked to man the country’s territorial seas. In 2003, its budget was pegged at P1.082 billion (roughly $22 million). This year, its budget is pegged at P1.809 billion (around $40 million).

The bulk of the Coast Guard’s annual budget goes to salaries, leaving a measly amount for acquisition of new equipment. In 2003 and 2004, its capital outlay was only P10 million ($227,272). In 2005 and 2006, it had no budget for capital outlay at all. In 2007, its capital outlay rose to P44 million ($1 million) but declined this year to P25 million ($586,181).

Because of its limited budget, the Coast Guard can only afford to keep 4,000 people on its payroll, when the actual requirement far higher.

“We actually need an optimum 25,000 men and women to perform our duties well,” former Coast Guard officer-in-charge Vice Admiral Danilo Abinoja said an interview last year.

Yet despite these tell-tale problems, government and Congress, which has the power of the purse, failed to provide the Coast Guard with ample funds and consolidate the confusing maritime laws and regulations, which allows for buck-passing. A number of proposed measures, from instituting a Department of Maritime Affairs, modernizing the maritime industry and enacting a Maritime Code, have been filed in previous congresses but have never got to the committee level That is because such issues are not in the radar of politicians and government, Osmena acknowledged. Political and economic issues consume the energy of lawmakers, he added.

In its 1988 committee report on the Dona Paz disaster, the Senate noted that “most ship passengers belong to the poorer sectors of our population. Unless immediate changes are made to improve passenger service and shipping routes, the government stays open to an indictment of ‘bias against the poor.’”

Twenty years later, the observation remains valid.