The lack of special marine disaster response and rescue units in the Lamu Indian Ocean waters is putting at risk the lives of hundreds of shippers and sailors in the region.
The Lamu channels are dangerous sailing zones and have witnessed a series of accidents in the past.
Shippers and sailors have been pushing for the establishment of disaster response units in order to save lives when such marine tragedies happen. However neither the county nor national government has taken any step to address their plight.
Boat operators and sea users who talked to Shipping on Tuesday said the government has always promised special rescue units when marine accidents occur, but the promises have not been fulfilled.
Hassan Awadh, the Lamu County Boat Operators Association Chairman, has challenged the County Government of Lamu, the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) and the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to act fast on the issue.
Mr Awadh said the lack of such a unit in Lamu is to blame for lost lives of many whenever accidents occur.
Common hotspots known for marine accidents in the Indian Ocean in Lamu are Mlango wa Tanu in Mkokoni, Mlango wa Ali in Kiwayu, Ndau and Mlango wa Bomani, which is an entrance to a channel connecting Kiunga harbour to the rest of the Indian Ocean. All these are in Lamu East.
Other black spots are Manda Bruno channel, the Mkanda Channel, Mlango wa Kipungani and Mlango wa Shella in Lamu West.
These killer channels are listed as the most dangerous in the Lamu waters with hordes of fishermen and sailors having perished there.
Mr Awadh noted that boat accidents are aggravated by the fact that very few people know how to swim, particularly when they find themselves in an unfamiliar territory.
“We call on the county and national governments to treat the matter with the urgency it deserves. We are tired of losing lives and property whenever marine accidents occur. They should think of providing special training to local divers and incoporate them into disaster response and rescue unit,” said Mr Awadh.
“We will be happy to see special boats on standby in places like Mkokoni, Kiunga, Manda Bruno, Mkanda, Kipungani, Kiwayu and Shella channels so that it becomes easy for them to act fast once accidents occur in those particular channels.” Athman Abbas, a coxswain plying the Lamu Island-Kiunga route, said the presence of the rescue units which are fully equipped with adequate infrastructure to counter marine disasters will give the sailors confidence while conducting their daily activities at sea.
Mr Abbas said on many occasions, seafarers involved in marine accidents have had to fight it out for survival on their own.
“Knowing that we have rescue units on standby gives us the confidence to operate in the Indian Ocean. We have witnessed deaths that would have otherwise been avoided or reduced had there been a disaster unit to promptly respond. We need the rescue units as soon as possible,” said Mr Abbas.
Yusuf Kupi, a long distance boat operator, said local divers volunteer to respond to accidents, but their effort is not enough, as some of them lack the skills to navigate some parts of the Indian Ocean due to rough tides.
He said rescue units should be established and equipped with stronger boats and diving gadgets.
Captain Bob, another boat operator in Lamu Old Town, said owing to the history of marine accidents in Lamu, there is need for the region to have enough rescue boats patrolling the seas so that they can promptly respond in case of accidents.
“It’s unimaginable that Lamu with the kind of history we’ve had with marine accidents, we still have no proper mechanism put in place to respond. That’s why people continue to die at sea. These deaths could have been averted if we had a fully equipped rescue unit,” said Mr Bob.
“There is also a need for Lamu to have a clear disaster response plan. There have been so many promises by the county and national government but neither side seems genuine.” One of the worst marine accidents in the history of Lamu happened in 2017 when ODM politician Shekue Kahale lost 11 relatives, among them his four young children aged between nine and 11 as well as his wife.
Only the politician survived the boat accident after swimming for hours to an isolated island where he was discovered by local divers a day later.
On June 20 last year,10 people died after a dhow they had boarded capsized at the notorious Mkanda channel.
On October 9, 2017, four people who had been reported missing at sea were found alive and well after an extensive search mounted by the Kenya Red Cross Society in Lamu and the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA). The four had spent a nightmarish night on the lonely Indian Ocean waters after their boat was overpowered by rough tides at the Manda Bruno channel sweeping the vessel all the way to Dodori. On May 7, 2016, two people died after a boat they were travelling in capsized at the Kengen area in Lamu Island. The boat which was overloaded with timber had four passengers onboard but two — a coxswain and a passenger —survived by swimming to the shores.
In October, 2015, three officers, an Administration Police, an intelligent officer and a crew member died after a boat they were travelling in capsized at Mlango wa Tanu Channel in Mkokoni, Lamu East Sub County.
On September 6, 2014, 11 navy officials escaped death narrowly, leaving others critically injured after a marine boat they were travelling in capsized at Boru area in Lamu East.
On January 1, 2012, nine people perished after a passenger boat MV Safina carrying over 80 people collided with another vessel carrying nearly 50 drums of fuel, sending the passenger boat plummeting to the sea bottom.