Doubts over Malawi port project Projects

Not a ship sent up the wa­ter­way to test the wa­ters so to speak, writes Peter Fabricius

Daily News - - VIEWS & ANALYSIS -

IN THE won­der­ful 1982 Werner Her­zog film Fitz

car­rraldo, the would-be rub­ber-baron of that name drags a large steamship over a high, steep hill in Peru, be­cause it is the only way to get his rub­ber past treach­er­ous and im­pass­able rapids in the Ucay­ali River and thence to the Ama­zon and the At­lantic to fi­nance his dream – an opera house in the re­mote in­te­rior city of Iquitos.

Fitz­car­raldo sprang to mind this past week­end as Malaw­ian Pres­i­dent Bingu wa Mutharika cer­e­mo­ni­ously “launched” the Shire-Zam­bezi wa­ter­way from Nsanje on the Shire River in south­ern Malawi via the Zam­bezi River to the In­dian Ocean port of Chinde in Mozam­bique about 238km away.

Mutharika in­tends the wa­ter­way to cut the costs of im­ports and ex­ports to and from his land­locked coun­try by about 60 per­cent and thereby to ren­der it land­locked no more.

From Nsanje, rail­ways and road are to link it to the rest of Malawi and other coun­tries, in­clud­ing also land­locked Zim­babwe and Zam­bia.

Ger­many’s Ham­burg in­land port in­spired the “Nsanje World In­land Port”.

It al­ready in­cludes a dock of about 200m which can berth three medium-sized ships or barges and should even­tu­ally move about 10 000 con­tain­ers a year.

Nearly half of the even­tual es­ti­mated US$6 bil­lion cost of the project has ap­par­ently al­ready been spent and an air­port and other trans­port in­fra­struc­ture are be­ing built at Nsanje to con­nect the wa­ter­way to the in­te­rior.

Mutharika hoped to launch Nsanje port and the wa­ter­way in the only ap­pro­pri­ate way on Satur­day by re­ceiv­ing its first ves­sel, a barge car­ry­ing fer­tiliser for his ac­claimed agri­cul­tural projects.

But the barge never ar­rived. The Mozam­bique au­thor­i­ties “im­pounded” it, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports, in­sist­ing that the nav­i­ga­bil­ity of the Shire and Zam­bezi Rivers should be prop­erly es­tab­lished be­fore they would al­low ves­sels to ply the wa­ter­way.

Mozam­bi­can Pres­i­dent Ar­mando Gue­buza “snubbed” Mutharika by de­clin­ing his in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony, Malaw­ian jour­nal­ists re­ported.

They also sug­gested Mozam­bique was ob­struct­ing the project for fear of los­ing busi­ness at its main ports of Ma­puto and Beira.

Yet oth­ers have also ques­tioned the nav­i­ga­bil­ity of the two rivers, in­clud­ing a Ger­man firm which un­der­took a fea­si­bil­ity study with Euro­pean Union fund­ing and no sci­en­tific study yet seems to have judged the project vi­able.

Malaw­ian busi­ness peo­ple also seem scep­ti­cal, prompt­ing Mutharika to crit­i­cise them for not in­vest­ing in Nsanje.

De­fend­ers of the project re­tort that the Shire-Zam­bezi route was used by 19th cen­tury ex­plor­ers and mis­sion­ar­ies and that as re­cently as 1970 a Malaw­ian sugar com­pany used it to trans­port mo­lasses by barge to the sea.

This is hardly com­pelling ev­i­dence for the vi­a­bil­ity of such an am­bi­tious project, and it seems as­ton­ish­ing that Mutharika has pressed so far ahead with­out ac­tu­ally send­ing a ship up the wa­ter­way to test the wa­ters, so to speak.

It can hardly have been re­as­sur­ing to Mutharika that Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, one of only two re­gional pres­i­dents to at­tend Satur­day’s launch (the other be­ing Zam­bian Pres­i­dent Ru­piah Banda) im­plic­itly crit­i­cised Gue­buza for his scep­ti­cism and promised Zim­babwe’s full sup­port to the wa­ter­way.

This is af­ter all the man at the helm of the good ship Zim­babwe which Banda’s pre­de­ces­sor, the late Levy Mwanawasa, once likened to the Ti­tanic be­cause he said so many Zim­bab­weans were jump­ing ship.

Curse

Be­ing land­locked is a curse for more than a quar­ter of Africa’s na­tions, im­pos­ing ex­tra bur­dens on coun­tries strug­gling to make ends meet.

So one can un­der­stand Mutharika’s dream of break­ing that lock and es­cap­ing to the sea. And his peo­ple mostly seem to share his dream as most of the com­men­tary of or­di­nary cit­i­zens seems so far to have been sur­pris­ingly favourable.

But let us hope that, like Fitz­car­raldo – or in­deed like Her­zog, whose film was just as crazily am­bi­tious as its pro­tag­o­nist’s project – Mutharika does not end up hav­ing to drag his ships over­land to re­alise his dream.

LAND­LOCKED: Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, left, and his coun­ter­part Malawi Pres­i­dent Bingu wa Mutharika. Mozam­bi­can Pres­i­dent Ar­mando Gue­buza, bot­tom right, snubbed Mutharika’s in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend the launch of the Shire-Zam­bezi wa­ter­way.

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