The Mozambican government has once again firmly rejected the demands from Malawi that the Zambezi and Shire rivers be used for commercial shipping.
Malawian officials have once again raised the question of using the Shire-Zambezi waterway for Malawian trade, protesting that the Mozambican authorities are “creating difficulties”.
At a Maputo press conference on Thursday, senior Transport Ministry official Jafar Ruby retorted that the difficulties are not of Mozambique’s making, but are inherent to the Malawian project which was “neither viable nor sustainable in the short, medium and long term”.
Mozambique had believed that the matter was definitively settled when a study carried out by an international consultancy company, Hydroplan, selected by the three countries potentially involved in the Shire-Zambezi project, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, found it was not viable. The three countries had signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2007, but after the Hydroplan study Mozambique notified the Malawian and Zambian governments that it was withdrawing from the Memorandum with effects as from June 2016.
The study had shown that the Shire-Zambezi waterway “is not commercially navigable in its natural state, and under these conditions, the general objective of the proposed project – the reduction of transport costs in terms of time and money – cannot be achieved”.
Using the river for Malawi’s trade would imply regular dredging and removal of plants, which would be extremely expensive. The maximum amount of goods that could be moved along the two rivers would be 273,200 tonnes per year. Dredging would cost 30 million US dollars a year, and the removal of aquatic plants 50 million dollars a year. These figures, Raby said, show that “the project is not viable”.
Malawi had other, far cheaper and less time-consuming options – namely to use the Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala, moving goods to and from the ports by rail or road. “Transport by river would take between 10 and 12 days, compared with a day and a half from Lilongwe to Beira, and three and a half days from Blantyre to Nacala”, said Raby.
Mozambique has suggested other alternatives to Malawi. Malawi is not currently using the Sena railway line to Beira – but it could do. Relinking the Malawian rail system to the Sena line would involve rehabilitating 193 kilometres of track. The river port of Nsanje, which Malawi built on the Shire, could be linked to the planned Mozambican port of Macuse, on the coast of Zambezia province (a distance of 476 kilometres), and existing roads could link Blantyre to the port of Quelimane (425 kilometres).
The Shire-Zambezi waterway project was conceived by the late Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika. Although it had not secured Mozambican approval, Mutharika’s government even went as far as building the port at Nsanje at a cost of twenty million US dollars.
In October 2010 it held an inauguration ceremony attended by VIPs including President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The event was a huge embarrassment when the Mozambican authorities blocked fertiliser laden barges that were en route to Nsanje.
The whole scenario was bizarre as the Mozambican government had always been clear that its waterways can only be used after the correct steps have been taken, which include environment impact assessments.
At the time, the then president of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza, explained that while he understood Malawi’s desire to use the two rivers for its trade, it could only happen after the viability and environmental studies. Those studies have now been made and they show that the project is not viable.
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