Sadc must pursue rail project with vigour
SADC countries are one, united by geography, economics, culture and politics. The 15 Sadc member states constitute Africa’s most politically stable and secure trading grouping where their citizens and companies move, trade and socialise freely. While some regional blocs on the continent routinely suffer devastating wars, Southern Africa is generally stable although there are challenges in Mozambique, Lesotho and the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Still the instability is nothing compared to the situation in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and West Africa.
But a lot still needs to be done for Sadc to attain greater economic integration. One of the important ways through which the integration can grow is through sharing of critical physical infrastructure. We must however, acknowledge that indeed Sadc countries share, among others, electricity generation and distribution infrastructure at Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams, roads, railways, security co-operation, have the Sadc Trade Protocol and the simple fact that Sadc exists as a grouping of 15 countries in the region.
The proposed railway line linking Botswana through Zimbabwe to Mozambique, if it materialises, will further consolidate the already solid relations not only between the three focal countries, but the rest of the region as well.
We witnessed on Friday, the signing of a memorandum of understanding by ministers of transport representing Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana for the building of a $600 million, 1 500km long railway line, the Port Techobanine Heavy Haul Rail Project.
The Minister of Transport and Infrastructural Development, Dr Joram Gumbo, Mozambique’s Minister of Transport and Communications Mr Carlos Alberto Mesquita and Botswana’s Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources Mr Onkokane Kitso Mokaila signed the agreement at a Bulawayo hotel.
Minister Gumbo said each of the three governments is expected to contribute about $200 million to the project that will be implemented under the private-public partnership funding model.
“Only about 100KM of rail will be in Botswana and another 100KM will be in Mozambique,” he said. “But if you look at the stretch that is about 1 500KM, which means the longest rail will be in Zimbabwe. That means a lot to our country in terms of transit payments. It is hoped and anticipated that the project will provide improved distribution of regional traffic among corridors in Southern Africa, increase regional integration and international cooperation and provide for fast implementation of a fundamental regional transportation network. The Ponta Techobanine Inter-regional Heavy Haul Railway project is expected to facilitate investment in mining, transport and manufacturing sectors that have stunted in Zimbabwe and Botswana alike due to lack of seaport facilities for importation of material and components and exports of ore products and finished commodities.”
This is indeed a massive project for Sadc that will result in a range of benefits. It is obvious, as the minister notes, that it will facilitate trade.
For the three land-locked countries, we foresee the project easing their access to the sea and opening up an alternative route to existing ones that are concentrated on South Africa.
It poses grave economic and security risks for a region such as ours to rely on one or two rail, even road links to the sea. Presently, routes to South Africa are congested, which means that bulk freight both exports and imports destined to or from land-locked economies tends to take long periods to arrive and much money is spent in storage charges.
A security threat along the existing routes would create unimaginable challenges to these countries. But a new route, to alternative ports such as the one through Mozambique would spread the risk, reduce expenses that companies in the three economies incur in importing and exporting bulk freight and the turnaround times.
For Botswana, said Minister Mokaila, the new route would be key as his country is readying itself to maximising benefits from the new coal reserves it discovered in the east of that country, about 220 billion tonnes of it. Coal is naturally a bulky commodity which can only be profitably hauled by rail and sea. Road can do but cannot be as competitive as when ferried by rail. His country has a long term plan of exporting to Asia and Europe but that cannot happen effectively through the existing railway line, hence the need to open up a new one.
The Ponta Techobanine Inter-regional Heavy Haul Railway line will make that dream possible.
We however understand that there has been an option to reach the sea through Namibia at Walvis Bay. Zimbabwe has discussed with Namibia that possibility. Similar negotiations have been undertaken between Botswana and Namibia.
That holds potential too and we urge Zimbabwe and Botswana to pursue it as well.