OPINION: Lake drownings in Nalubaale: a Collision of Human Folly and Physics


Dr Muniini K. Mulera
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By Muniini Mulera

Sadness. Anger. Fury. Pity. Disillusionment. Helplessness. These and other emotions have been pummeling me since I received the news of the premature and preventable deaths of almost three dozen Ugandans that drowned in Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) over the weekend.

It goes against our tradition of not speaking ill of the dead and injured, but I must ask: Why? Why do we not learn to respect one of our most deadly gifts from God? If we cannot respect those beautiful water bodies which provide us with life, we should at least fear them for they are very efficient killers.

Lake Nalubaale can just as easily provide grief as it does enjoyment. Only a fool ignores more than a century of recorded human disasters on a lake that kills 5,000 fishermen every year, earning it the title of “most dangerous lake in the world.”

Many of Nalubaale’s deaths are victims of the lake itself, for it has a mood disorder, capable of rapid swings from a dark, quiet and foggy depression, to a manic churning of her waters followed by an exhausted stillness that deceives us with irresistible beauty. Even the most careful and experienced seaman can be killed by Nalubaale.

However, very large numbers, perhaps the majority, of those who die on that lake, are victims of human folly that collides with the unforgiving laws of basic physics. Blame it on an ancient Greek fellow called Archimedes and his stuff about hydrostatics, buoyancy, weight and water. Like Sir Isaac Newton, Archimedes ordained rules that remain stubbornly triumphant in the face of humanity’s suicidal attempts to resist them. We were taught that stuff in high school so that we apply it on our journeys through life.

Physics is so brutal that it informs the boat manufacturers’ prescription of a maximum load for a given vessel. Disobey the laws of physics and you may learn a lethal lesson and leave behind heartbroken orphans and other relatives. That is very likely what happened this past weekend.

The dead revellers were among a reported 120 or so people that boarded an unseaworthy piece of unlicensed junk with a capacity for 50 passengers. We do not have details of what actually happened, but it is a reasonable guess that young people having a good time might have been standing up, perhaps unbalancing the crappy boat.

Had they remembered basic high school physics, they would have known that such an action would raise the vessel’s centre of gravity, making it dangerously unstable and very prone to tipping. One hopes that they were not under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, for that would have been an added risk while engaging with water.

Stories are trickling in from survivors and police officers. It appears that the police had tried to save the revellers’ lives by asking them to abort their mission. The police allege that the revellers rejected the advice, boarded a leaky vessel with a malfunctioning engine, and sailed to their preventable deaths and injury. Many did not know how to swim and had no life vests.

It is not as though we have not had previous disasters to teach us hard lessons. On September 20, just two months ago, 228 people drowned in Lake Nalubaale at Bwisya, Ukara Island, Tanzania when the MV Nyerere, a Tanzanian ferry, capsized 50 meters from the dock. Its capacity was 100 passengers, 3 cars and 25 tons of cargo. They had loaded it with cargo and 269 passengers, more than twice its capacity.

This was 22 years after the great disaster of May 21, 1996 when the MV Bukoba sank a few kilometres from Mwanza, killing 894 people. The ship’s capacity was 430 passengers and 840 tons.

The worst marine disaster in East Africa in recent decades appears to have been the sinking near Zanzibar of the MV Spice Islander I on September 10, 2011. Whereas the ship had a capacity of 45 crew and 645 passengers, it was carrying 2,470 passengers. Of these, 203 were confirmed dead and 1,370 missing.

These are a few examples of the recklessness that continues to inflict premature death on our people. Nalubaale is just one of the Great Lakes that fishermen and others continue to treat as though they are friendly playgrounds. The deaths on those smaller lakes have been no less disastrous, though the loss of peasants and other dwellers of places far from Kampala does not generate as much national attention and grief as the demise of Kampala’s young and reckless.

This recklessness is in the same league as that which we see on the highways, with drivers, often filled with alcohol, flying their automobiles as though possessed by a death wish. Buses and trucks are driven like toys down the steep inclines in the hilly parts of the country. Dozens of passengers, standing on open lorry beds and others perched atop bananas, show their contempt for Newton’s laws.

Boda Boda riders steer their terror machines through towns and villages with complete disregard for pedestrian presence and other road users. The sight of several little kids perched on a Boda Boda, some sitting on the operator’s lap, is one I cannot get used to. Passengers holding on to large, wide pieces of glass or beds or other furniture seem to attach greater value to these inanimate things than to their lives and the lives of other road users.

Of course, in Uganda, the Boda Boda riders engage in their recklessness with confidence that they have the backing of the country’s president. Their votes and spying work prevent the ruler from enforcing discipline and rule-based operation of their vehicles. Indeed, there is very little enforcement of safety regulations across the board.

But we should not blame the vehicle operators and the government alone. Passengers who jump onto these boats, trucks and other vehicles are part of the problem. The urgency to get home or to be part of an exciting revelry dulls people’s sense of self-preservation. Their foolishness conspires with the greed of the vehicle operators in a perfect dance with death. The surprise is that survivors seem genuinely surprised when the accident happens.

Listen. Water is deadly. The World Health Organization says that drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death worldwide. About 372,000 people die from drowning every year, and this is probably an underestimate.  “Every hour of every day, more than 40 people lose their lives to drowning,” says Dr. Margaret Chan, the former Director General of the WHO.

Among the risk factors that the WHO has identified is poor swimming skills, low awareness of water danger, using drugs and alcohol while engaging with water, and poorly regulated and supervised water transportation. The WHO has two excellent publications on its website – Global Report on Drowning (2014)and Preventing Drowning: an implementation guide (2017) – that are essential reading by policy makers, community and government leaders, and all who live near water. In the end, it is every adult’s responsibility to recognise and respect water bodies. Though they please us, they can kill without warning.

My sincere condolences to all who have lost family members or friends in this disaster. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and comfort you. May we learn the lesson of this and similar tragedies, and change our behaviour.

The writer is a paediatrician and neonatologist in the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada. He is also a writer and columnist with emphasis on justice, freedom and dedemocracy.

muniini@mulerasfireplace.com

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