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Bangladesh's ferry safety failures

20 February 05 15:47 GMT

The latest disaster involving a ferry in Bangladesh has once again raised questions about the government's efforts to improve safety.

Thousands of ferries cross the country's rivers and waterways. But many lack basic safety standards.

The vessels are in poor condition, are often overloaded and do not contain passenger lists.

In calm weather, these three factors can be a dangerous enough combination, but in rough weather it is potentially lethal.

Sudden storms are common at certain times of year in Bangladesh.

A fine day can within minutes turn into strong winds and thick, driving rain where visibility is reduced to only a few metres.

Smooth flowing rivers can just as quickly become fast flowing whirlpools.

Such conditions are treacherous for overladen and top-heavy ferries which all too frequently capsize, trapping many of their passengers inside.

Safety measures

The government says one of its top priorities is to improve safety and warn people of the dangers.

But in a country where many people have no realistic option other than to travel by boat, the plea has frequently been ignored.

Shipping Minister Akbar Hossain visited the scene of Saturday's accident on the Buriganga river.

He said new measures to reduce the high death toll on the nation's rivers, which had been due to come into force at the end of April, would be implemented immediately, Reuters news agency reports.

They include modernising old ferries, extra checks to ensure safety certificates are up to date and monitoring to prevent overloading.

As part of the project, 11 weather forecasting stations are also due to be set up along main rivers.

Captive market

But the BBC's Alastair Lawson says the problem is that enforcement of regulations has traditionally been lax.

Often there are no policemen or safety officials on the riverside to prevent ferry operators from overloading, our correspondent adds.

There is also a shortage of ferries, and not enough roads and bridges for people to travel by land.

Operators have in effect had a captive market, according to our correspondent.

In previous ferry accidents the government held inquiries which all concluded that more must be done to improve safety.

But in most cases the recommendations have not been implemented, because of a shortage of resources - both financial and human.

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