Ship tragedy on Yangtze a wake-up call to improve safety standards

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 12:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 12:35am

Questions are inevitable when a tragedy occurs. The circumstances behind the feared loss of hundreds of mostly elderly people after the cruise ship the Eastern Star capsized during a storm on the Yangtze River has raised more than the usual number. It occurred just days after President Xi Jinping demanded higher public safety standards in the wake of a deadly fire at a private nursing home. Heeding the call and following through with the highest standards are the only ways to prevent another such catastrophe. Relatives want to know why the Eastern Star sank so quickly, giving no time for the alarm to be raised. Weather warning systems have been brought into question; the ship does not appear to have dropped anchor, as did other vessels in the area at the time. The speed of the rescue, an apparent delay in announcing the accident and tight control of independent media access to the site are among other matters that have been raised. Some of the victims' families complain that they have been treated poorly.

The accident had echoes of the sinking last year of the Sewol, a South Korean ferry that keeled over, killing 304 people. But that vessel was in open waters and the majority of the victims were school children; the Eastern Star was sailing upriver towards the Three Gorges Dam on a well-navigated section of the central Yangtze and the 456 on board were mostly aged between 50 and 80. The loss of the Korean ship prompted Asia-wide calls for improved domestic shipping safety and those have understandably been revived after Monday night's disaster. Such measures were discussed six weeks ago by government officials from across the region at a conference in Manila organised by the International Maritime Organisation.

That meeting determined that there was "an urgent need to enhance the safety of ships carrying passengers on non-international voyages". Xi's call last Friday was less specific, but as relevant, seeking a better way of avoiding and dealing with safety hazards. There is every reason for those measures to now be taken. Rising wealth has created a burgeoning tourism industry and cruises have become especially popular.

Travel on the Yangtze was once dangerous, but the dam and technological advances have markedly improved safety. However, demand and competition has led to a shortage of experienced sailors and profits are being squeezed, threatening standards. The Eastern Star tragedy has to be a wake-up call.