Doubts over Malawi port project Projects
Not a ship sent up the waterway to test the waters so to speak, writes Peter Fabricius
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.
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.