Enormous changes lie ahead for world shipping, says IMO Secretary-General

World Maritime Day 1999

The changes that lie ahead of shipping in the new millennium are enormous, said Mr. William A. O'Neil, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization in his annual World Maritime Day message today, World Maritime Day. The event is celebrated every year by IMO, the United Nations agency concerned with shipping safety and the prevention of marine pollution from ships. The theme of this year's Day is IMO and the New Millennium.

Mr. O'Neil said: "While we cannot predict precisely what those changes will be, we can make a few educated guesses about what will happen to our own industry, shipping.

"As the world's population continues to grow, so the need for food and goods will increase. As a result, trade across the oceans will rise - and so will the demand for ships to carry it. As the developing countries reach maturity they will need more food, more raw materials for their expanding industries, more fuel to satisfy their increasing energy needs and, on the other hand, they will also have more goods to export. This means that shipping will play an even more important role, because ships will remain the best, most economical and most environmentally friendly means of transport available."

Mr. O'Neil said that the accelerating changes in technology will affect ships themselves. "One major change will be in the speed of the vessels," he said. "Today most merchant ships operate at 20 knots or less, not much faster than they did fifty years ago. But already innovations in design have provided passenger ships that can travel at 50 knots and within a few years we can anticipate that even this speed will be substantially exceeded. Later, cargo ships will follow the same path.

"We can expect to see major changes in ships' propulsion. A hundred years ago, sailing ships were still common and most powered ships used coal. Today nearly all ships are fuelled by petroleum products. But as the new Millennium wears on, they will become increasingly scarce. What will the ships of tomorrow turn to as a fuel source? Nuclear or solar energy perhaps? Will sail make a return? Or will something completely undreamed of now be developed?"

Although Mr. O'Neil forecast that ships will become faster, he doubted if they will also become bigger. This will only happen if the economics and logistics of larger vessels are positive, he said. He continued: "If we look into the evolution of tankers and some of the grandiose plans of the past, I suspect that it will be many years before even larger vessels are built."

On the other hand, ships will certainly become more complex, Mr. O'Neil predicted. He said: "They will be fitted with more powerful computers and the links to shore by satellite communication systems will become increasingly sophisticated. Their navigation will become more dependent on electronic innovations such as the global positioning system, which will be combined with electronic charts and automatic alerting mechanisms to ensure that it will be impossible for a ship to disappear without a trace. Ships will become safer and they will continue to improve on their substantial achievements in pollution abatement."

In an era when change is the order of the day, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what the future holds for world shipping, Mr. O'Neil said. But we can expect technology to provide both opportunities and some problems. The shipping industry must be alert to this fact and take heed of the knowledge that some accidents at sea over the last few decades have been attributed to technological changes that were not thoroughly assessed from the safety point of view before they were introduced operationally.

Mr. O'Neil said that this attitude must change. He said: "We cannot let events unfold and then respond to ensuing disasters. We have to prevent them from happening in the first place. New technology will help in this process, because by compiling data and examining accident reports and statistics carefully we will be able to gain a better idea of what actually causes accidents.

"One of the most common phrases used in shipping is that most accidents at sea are caused by human error, yet until fairly recently little has been done to try to determine why highly-skilled, well-trained professional seafarers make mistakes. We must concentrate on finding an answer to this puzzle."

As the new Millennium unfolds, Mr. O'Neil said, the complexity of the ships of the future will require greater expertise on the part of those who operate them. So crew training must be improved and the standards of everyone involved in shipping, on shore as well as at sea, will have to be raised. The proper implementation of the revised STCW Convention as well as the ISM Code will go a long way towards achieving these objectives.

But the Secretary-General also stressed that the important role of those providing the training should be highlighted because "we must ensure that they are highly qualified, well motivated and are provided with a work environment and compensation package which takes into account their advanced skills and encourages them in their professional responsibilities."

Mr. O'Neil said that "We will have to pay particular attention to certain specific types of ships. For instance, passenger vessels will require special care, because so many people are involved. There have been a number of incidents in recent years in which these craft have had to be evacuated. Very few lives have been lost - but that has to some extent been a matter of good fortune. We must make sure that the existing regulatory regime and operating procedures are capable of dealing with the tremendous increase in the size of these vessels. We cannot afford to wait for an accident to result in tragedy before taking action."

Despite this, Mr. O'Neil said that the shipping world did not need more and more regulations. IMO and the shipping industry agree that this is not necessarily the best way to raise standards, but that we should focus on ensuring that existing measures are properly implemented.

Mr. O'Neil said: "Part of the problem is related to the fact that industry and Governments are having difficulties coping with the legislation that has already been produced, without adding any more to the list. Therefore, we have to make sure that conventions and regulations that are in place are applied and enforced before we set about developing new ones. The IMO Technical Co-operation programme, which has been conceived and structured as an integral component of the implementation process, will facilitate this. Its already proven usefulness will be enhanced in the future by expanding the current use of Regional Officers to other areas of the world."

Mr. O'Neil said: "There is, however, one other positive thing we can do as we prepare for the new Millennium - one factor that we can introduce ourselves and that is to change our attitude towards shipping safety and the protection of the environment. We must continue to foster a culture of safety within our industry with quality as its fulcrum. New technology will not create a culture, but we as individuals can. It is up to us to make sure that in everything we do, quality and safety are our first thoughts. During the last forty years IMO has achieved a great deal of success in dealing with its prime objectives. Accidents and total losses of ships have gone down steadily. The amount of oil getting into the sea from ships has been cut by as much as 60% and the number of major oil spills reduced by half."

The Secretary-General said that IMO had a record to be proud of. But it is one upon which the Organization must ceaselessly continue to build. He concluded: "That must be our goal for the future. The task is never-ending but the rewards are immense and I am sure that in the new Millennium all who are engaged in the myriad of components that make up the shipping industry will rise to the challenge and we will further improve safety at sea and the marine environment."